Jon M Sterling, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, has created his own ‘mathematical Zettelkasten’, which he also calls ‘a forest of evergreen notes’.

He maintains a very interesting website, built using a tool he created, named, appropriately enough, Forester.

The roots of a fig tree in Sydney Botanic Gardens

The implementation of his ideas raises all sorts of ideas and questions for me, almost all enthusiastic. Here are a few in no order at all:

  • Andy Matuschak coined the term ‘evergreen notes’, which Jon Sterling has further developed with great elegance. The original concept, I think, comes from journalism’s ‘evergreen content’, an item that’s endlessly relevant, which can be created in advance and only used on a slow-news day. It has been adopted by content marketers as a kind of holy grail of online writing. Why write about yesterday’s sports results (ephemeral) when you can write about how to cook a meatloaf (evergreen) and get better SEO? This is a quite a bit different from Jon Sterling’s apparent intention, where the academic workflow involves producing papers, lectures, presentations and so on,from the same or similar units of information, and the interchangeability of the publishing format matters. I wonder whether there’s a tension between the ‘evergreen’ quality of the contents of the note (i.e. an idea that can be applied in several different contexts) and the format of the note (i.e. a textual artefact that can be re-mixed and re-published). In any case, Prof. Sterling seems to be on the way to resolving it.
  • Forester uses a unique ID for each note, which is an author’s three-letter initials followed by a unique four digit base 36 number (i.e. a number where the permitted numerals are 0123456789ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ). I like this, a lot. With just four digits you can identify 1,679,616 unique notes - far more than you’re likely to be generating.
  • There are some stimulating thoughts on the role of hierarchy in notes, which I’ve also been thinking about.
  • Sterling is keen on atomicity. Me too. Very keen, because from fragments you can build a greater whole.
  • Is this a Zettelkasten or a public Wiki? Hmm, not sure. Arguably, a Wiki needs to be using wiki software, whereas a Zettelkasten is rather a method or process, which numerous tools could create. But whatever it is, it does make me think there’s a clear fourfold typology here: single-author or multi-author? Public or private?
    • Andy Matuschak’s site is a public, single-author creation
    • Jon Sterling’s site is public but multi-author
    • Niklas Luhmann’s original Zettelkasten was private and single-author, and though it has since opened to the public, that wasn’t its function during the author’s lifetime. Most, if not all, 20th Century Zettelkästen were private and single-author
    • Is there a private, multi-author example? If so, I’m not aware of it, perhaps because, you know, it’s private. But such a thing might well exist.
  • Before seeing Jon Sterling’s site, I had held a simple distinction between the Zettlekasten and the Wiki. I don’t really wish to re-open an old argument, but just want to make a small observation. For me, a Wiki is a public- or semi-public facing product in its own right, a kind of publication, whereas a Zettelkasten is a method or process to produce public-facing artifacts, but it isn’t one of these artifacts itself. But now I wonder whether you can’t do both back-stage and front-stage at the same time. In other words, it looks to me like Jon Sterling is creating a Zettelkasten by my definition (it’s a process to produce public-facing artifacts such as articles and presentations), but he’s working with the garage door open (it’s a kind-of product in its own right). This is an interesting thing to watch, and it’s always fun to experience the mystique of the studio.