Niklas Luhmann, the famed sociologist of Bielefeld, Germany, wrote of how he saw his voluminous working notes (his ‘Zettelkasten’) as a kind of conversation partner, which surprised him from time to time. But he wasn’t the first to suggest that a person’s notes might be in some sense alive.

At the end of the Nineteenth century there was a massive explosion of technological change which affected almost every aspect of society. People marveled at new invention after new invention and there was a tendency to see mechanical and especially electrical advances as somehow endowed with life. The phonograph, for example, was held to be alive and print adverts even claimed it had a soul.

A vintage print advert for a phonograph with a soul

Huge industrial transformation led to fundamental changes in business administration. Yet again, information threatened to overwhelm with its sheer quantity. The index card system was adapted for new circumstances, and it too was seen as somehow alive. Manuals, sometimes sponsored by office furniture manufacturers, explained how to operate this new system.

One such manual, Julius Kaiser’s The Card System at the Office (1908) emphasised the central role the humble index card now took:

“The set of cards can fairly be regarded as the basis of the entire system, hence it is properly called the card system.” (para 59 Definition)

Another example of these ‘card system’ manuals is R.B. Byles’s The card index system; its principles, uses, operation, and component parts (1911).

This short volume begins memorably:

”Roughly speaking, the world is divided into two classes : those who use the Card Index System and those who do not.” (p.v)

The first chapter introduces the metaphor of the card system as a living entity:

“an alphabetic file is a dead, inanimate thing, giving forth only such information as it is compelled… A file based on the card index system is, on the other hand, a satisfactory and economical system of dealing with every sort of material, and is moreover a thing alive, ready at all times to place at the disposal of those who consult it all that information which in the past was regarded as the special attribute of the man [sic] of long experience.” (p.8)

As we approach the second quarter of the Twenty-first Century, the tendency to believe our new technology is somehow alive re-appears. Large language models talk back to us with eery proficiency. But just as the phonograph and the card index obviously aren’t alive, we’ll look back on this period and recognise quite clearly that our latest AI tools aren’t actually alive either. Metaphors can be useful, provided we don’t forget that they’re just figures of speech.

This being the case, it’s time to celebrate those who are really living: us, the people who animate the otherwise inanimate technologies of every era.

Three ways my notes might be ‘alive’

Nevertheless, there are at least three directions in which it might still be reasonable to think of your collection of notes as being alive.

The first direction is towards the idea of the ‘extended mind’, which I wrote about in How to make the most of surprising yourself.

You could view your collection of linked notes as part of your extended mind, which your brain creates constantly by co-opting its wider environment into its own processing activity. Brain and environment together create mind. On this account I might view ‘aliveness’ as a quality that arises at the intersection of myself and my world, and therefore out of the interaction between myself and my notes.

In her book, The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul says:

“We extend beyond our limits, not by revving our brains like a machine or bulking them up like a muscle — but by strewing our world with rich materials, and by weaving them into our thoughts.”

The second way of thinking about this is a kind of formalisation of the idea that aliveness happens between people and their world. One such formalisation is known as Actor Network Theory. This concept claims that everything that exists, happens in complex networks of relationships.

Perhaps these early encounters with ‘living’ technology that I described earlier were grasping after a perception only later addressed systematically by intellectual developments such as Actor Network Theory, which proposes that non-human entities do have agency in the ‘parliament of things’.

Bruno Latour, the sociologist most strongly associated with ANT, said he’d have preferred to call it ‘actant-rhizome ontology’ if that had sounded better (sorry Bruno, it really didn’t). I wrote a little about this when I claimed a network of notes is a rhizome not a tree.

The third way of thinking of my notes as being alive in some sense relates to Lynne Kelly’s work on memory. I referred to this in The mastery of knowledge is an illusion. My thinking here was strongly influenced by the wonderful book Kelly co-wrote with Margo Neale: Songlines: the power and the promise.

Non-literate, oral cultures live in an enchanted world, not necessarily in a magical sense, but in the sense that the whole environment ‘speaks’, as part of a wider extended mind. Geographical features are not merely ‘dead matter’. They’re alive to tell stories which recount histories and genealogies, to give blessings and warnings. Plants and animals are similarly endowed with a depth of meaning. This is the world that literate culture has exiled itself from, but could perhaps regain.

So, are my notes ‘a thing alive’? Well, not exactly - but then not exactly not, either. Perhaps in time this is how we’ll come to see AI too, as existing in a kind of liminal space somewhere between living and non-living.

Whatever the conclusion, I’ve found this a useful question to think with.

See also: Jules Verne could have told us AI is not a real person


Byles, R. B., 1911. The card index system; its principles, uses, operation, and component parts (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons) view online.

Kaiser, Julius, 1908. The Card System at the Office (London: Vacher and Sons) view online

Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly, 2020. Songlines: The Power and Promise. Thames and Hudson.

Annie Murphy Paul, 2021. The Extended Mind. The power of thinking outside the brain. HarperCollins.

Sayes, Edwin, 2014. “Actor–Network Theory and methodology: Just what does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency?.” Social studies of science 44, no. 1:134-149.