Digital note-writing systems fixate on the presentation and manipulation of individual notes, mostly ignoring inter-note sense-making

If I’m writing Evergreen notes onto physical index cards, I’ll naturally arrange them on my desk as I write them. Several notes that are related will likely end up in a small cluster or pile. Notes which follow from others will probably sit physically to the right of “more fundamental” notes. As I’m writing a new note, I’ll see all the other notes I’ve been writing, physically arranged adjacent to it. This is a kind of Peripheral vision.

In a digital Note-writing system, by contrast, the environment’s focused on the experience of writing one note. The core operations and representations fixate on “the note you have open,” not on larger structures. In digital note-taking systems, I usually can’t simultaneously see the other note I’ve just finished writing—let alone the last four. Most systems barely support multiple windows, but even if I can open multiple windows, it’s awkward to arrange them into the spatial relationships I might naturally use for physical cards. Rather than peripheral vision, it’s like I’m wearing horse blinders and mittens.

Backlinks are a weak peripheral vision, and they help, but they’re generally a way of changing the one note you have open, not an effective means of sense-making across many notes. Contextual backlinks help: in such a listing, you can at least see snippets of many notes at once. But if you navigate among those backlinks as you make sense of the structure, you lose object permanence. Related: It’s hard to navigate to unlinked “neighbors” in associative note systems

If I read a note some time later, I have the unnerving sense that it’s part of some “whole” that I can’t see at all. Here, the practices described in Evergreen notes should be atomic work against me. If I was working with physical notes, I’d pull a bunch of notes onto my desk and arrange them. Shuffling the notes around would help me make sense of the structure. There isn’t really a digital equivalent.

This reminds me of the “spatial” Finder in earlier versions of Mac OS, in which each folder would be opened into a new window and those windows’ positions and sizes would be persisted across sessions. A given folder would always be in a particular spot once opened, so you could establish ad-hoc arrangements of folders which would persist over time.

Last updated 2023-07-13.