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Who a Zettelkasten Is For (Especially an Analog One)


Scott P. Scheper

Downtown San Diego, CA




Wednesday 9:46 am

Dear Friend,

What you are about to read largely comes from the book I am working on relating to the Antinet. An Antinet is a term for an analog Zettelkasten that ascribes to the four principles of its creator, Niklas Luhmann.

In the early days of writing my book on the Antinet, I recorded a podcast every day.[1] In the podcast, I mainly discussed items related to what I was discovering about the Antinet.

One day my father, who has served the community as a mortgage broker for over thirty-five years, visited me in San Diego, California (I live about an hour south of him). I learned that he had listened to a lengthy episode about the Antinet recorded the previous day. Yet instead of feeling grateful, I felt a bit uneasy. It prompted me to clarify who should even bother investing their finite life energy into learning about the Antinet. Sure, my dad probably listened to the podcast because he loves me. But should he really invest his time learning about the Antinet?

Attention is the most valuable asset you have. You must not waste it learning something that you really shouldn't bother with. I love my dad and would hate to think he'd waste his time learning about the Antinet when he really should be spending it on his craft. Even though I don't know you, I'd hate for you to waste your time as well. For this reason, before you even begin getting too deep into learning about the Antinet, I would like to provide some context and reasons for why you should and shouldn't bother learning it.

Why You Should Bother Learning about an Antinet:

Here are three reasons why you should bother yourself with a Zettelkasten (either digital form, or Antinet form):

  1. You're a writer, author, or person who wants to create genius-level work in your field—the type of work that will last for over two hundred years.
  2. You already have experience writing by hand, and you're aware of its power—yet you ran into the same wall I once ran into stemming from notecard systems organized by category.
  3. You wish to use a system that develops the two most essential skills you'll need for thriving in the future: (1) the skill of getting to know your mind (self-awareness) and (2) the skill of developing your mind's flexibility.[2]

As mentioned in my other writings, the originator of the Antinet is a man named Niklas Luhmann. You will be learning about him in my book. Luhmann himself held that the Antinet is a "universal tool." A tool that can capture any thought and potentially provide value to anyone, as long as you can write down the thought on a notecard.[3]

Although Luhmann himself held that one "can place almost everything in [the notebox]," so long as it can be "noted down,"[4] I hold a closer view to that of several knowledge scientists. And that is: an Antinet is primarily beneficial for researchers and writers who wish to notate thoughts and ideas from their readings. It's mainly useful for non-fiction writers who do much reading, thinking, and processing of ideas. The Antinet develops thoughts both in the short term and long term. Thoughts serve as the raw material for non-fiction writers, and thoughts stand as the raw material for the Antinet.

The purpose of the Antinet is to develop your thoughts so that your thoughts are more thoroughly developed and supported by the time they make their way to your manuscript.

In brief, the Antinet is primarily a tool for researchers and writers. However, do note the use of the term primarily. The Antinet is primarily useful for non-fiction writers; yet, it's not exclusively useful for such individuals.

A More Pessimistic Answer to Who Should Even Bother With Learning about The Antinet:

One answer that is perhaps most probably approximately correct is that you shouldn't bother yourself with a Zettelkasten (either a digital one, or an Antinet one).

Here's why: there are 1.65 million writers in the world.[5] There are at least 7.8 million researchers in the world.[6] For good measure, let's throw in an extra 20 million more individuals (such as aspiring writers, professional researchers, graduate students, and independent intellectuals). That's 29.45 million people. Divide that into 7.9 billion people on earth, giving you 0.37%. In other words, there's a 0.37% chance that an Antinet is helpful for a person. Therefore, there's a small chance that you should bother learning the Antinet. However, you're not an average person. Being that you found yourself here and are reading this right now, perhaps I've already filtered out the other 99.63% of people. And, in that case, I'm honored to have you here!

A More Optimistic Answer to Who Should Even Bother Themselves Learning about an Antinet:

The Antinet is a system that serves as a ruminant for your thoughts. The idea that only non-fiction writers can benefit from such a system is somewhat limiting and probably inaccurate. Indeed, mathematicians who construct proofs that require rumination over months (or perhaps years) would most certainly find value in a system such as an Antinet.

Richard Feynman and many physicists would find their success watered down if it were not for their analog devices as a form of short-term thought development and long-term rumination.

Notwithstanding, non-fiction writers and deep researchers are primarily those who will benefit from thinking systems such as an Antinet.

If you're an entrepreneur, an artist, a software engineer, a business professional, etc., here's the cold hard truth: an Antinet will likely be less helpful to you—unless: (1) you intend to publish and ship content (whether it be written content or even music), or (2) you intend to directly apply the knowledge you develop in your work. This goes for any Zettelkasten system (even the digital knockoffs!).

Regardless of what camp you fall into, there's one thing you cannot forego. And that is, you must be committed over the long term to developing your knowledge using an Antinet. Think decades, not years.

Why Notetaking Is Even Important to Learn in the First Place:

It's been put forth by scholars that "reading without noting" yields "superficial knowledge." The reason why is because reading, as an act alone, is "not accompanied by the attention and thought required to make a well-considered note."[7]

Notetaking procures long-term knowledge storage by setting up the required material for maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal—critical components of human memory. This will be covered in my book.

Simply stated, if developing deep, long-term non-superficial knowledge from the books you read stands as something of essential value to you, then notetaking is the most critical skill you must master.

Why a Notetaking System Is Important:

One reason to build a notetaking system centers on the simple idea that one should follow in the footsteps of history's greatest scholars and thinkers: "In light of [notetakings] (literally) rich tradition, one would be well-advised to mind the recommendations of the scholars, and set about the construction of [a notetaking system] as soon as possible."[8]

Another idea centers on the idea that a notetaking system allows one to offload the cognitive processing work that memory requires if one wishes to recall memories. Cognitive processing can then be used to think, develop and reflect on ideas instead of using mnemonic memorization tricks, such as the method of loci used by ancient Greek thinkers.

Yet, as previously touched upon, a notetaking system is primarily best suited for writers and researchers who ingest and produce much content. Knowledge scientists agree that a notetaking system is a valuable tool for those who mainly wish to "work with information gleaned from reading."[9]

Why Use an Antinet:

An Antinet is a strict interpretation of the already niche field of Zettelkasten, which exists within the niche field of Personal Knowledge Management ("PKM"). PKM is a niche field within Knowledge Management, which stands already as a rather niche field itself. In brief, the Antinet resides in the deep alcoves of an already very niche field.

Chances are, you're a nerd like me who geeks out over learning, growth, reading, and the development of your mind. If that's not you, then you're in the wrong place. If this describes you, then carry on reading.

The question then becomes why you should invest your time learning about the Antinet.

There are several reasons, which I'll outline throughout the book; however, the short answer is this: it's the purest, hardest, most-time-intensive, and most rewarding way to develop your knowledge. The other new tools and digital apps cut corners that produce stinted thoughts. Life's too short. If you're going to produce work, do it the hard way. Do it the deliberate way. Do it the best way. The end result will show signs of your commitment to this.

The Antinet is for those who aim to produce thought-provoking content, even if it's at the expense of being easy. Digital tools, I contend, are easier and more convenient than building an analog thinking system; however, the work such systems produce is of lesser quality than systems that force one to think on paper with only a pen.

The Antinet Evolves Your Mind:

Another reason one ought to adopt and learn the Antinet centers around evolution. If you wish to evolve as a person and evolve your mind, an Antinet is the most full-bodied tool for doing such.

Akin to the concept of human evolution happening by way of externalization (i.e., creating tools like axes, spears, vehicles for transport), a theory "that was very succesful in the second half of the twentieth century states that evolution implies an increasing 'exteriorization' of individual memories."[10] This means that to evolve, we must externalize our memories and move from the structural coupling of communication from consciousness to communication with machines.

Yet there's a problem with this evolutionary leap. The problem is that when one moves towards communication with machines (i.e., using digital notes to interact with their own internally-sourced thoughts), one's consciousness is watered down and stripped of its individualism.

The Antinet Preserves One's Consciousness Better Than Digital Tools Because of Its Analog Nature:

Your handwriting is a very powerful thing. Something covered in my book centers around the concept of an internal ghost, internal monologue, and internal dialogue. The originator of the Antinet, Niklas Luhmann, referenced this concept as well. The idea of the internal ghost has been observed and studied by scholars as the interaction between (1) external memory systems like the Antinet and (2) internal memory (which is the so-called wetware memory that resides inside of your skull).

After studying John Boyle, John Locke, and Robert Hooke, one researcher found that "annotations that are stored in the external memory can function only in tandem with internal memory, so excerpts and notes prompt recollection of more than what they actually contain."[11] The magic that's happening here is that when one interacts with notes written in their handwriting and with other external contextual details attached to it (like the color and shape of the notecards), one's consciousness and memory fills in the details and other thoughts that serve as a cue for one's consciousness.

In other words, the notes in your Antinet set off almost a chain reaction—a conversation internally that becomes an internal dialogue (not an internal monologue). This experience is a powerful phenomenon found in analog thinking systems such as the Antinet.

Unlike digital notes, which may grow endlessly due to virtually unlimited space limits, notes in an Antinet serve as a cue for generating the recall process in your mind. Digital notes tend to take a different form; they tend to be all-encompassing and thorough, which gets overwhelming. Your notes should be a communication experience that takes place when you use them to write your book, essay, blog post, or paper.

Evolution via Communication and Artificial-Consciousness:

Evolution and human progress will emerge from the transition of the structural coupling of communication and consciousness to the structural coupling of communication and artificial-consciousness (by way of externalization).

The best tools are the ones that evolve into that of artificial consciousness—a communication partner that seems to have its own externalized personality.[12]

Thus far, computers and digital notetaking apps have proven useful as information storage systems, not as artificial consciousness storage systems. The Antinet is a better artificial consciousness storage system, and it serves as a better cue for the internal dialogue in the mind when it comes time to write. Also, I contend an Antinet is, paradoxically, closer to enabling human evolution than digital tools even though digital tools are evolutionarily seen as more evolved.

Why You Should Even Care About Learning a System That Strictly Ascribes to Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten:

Amongst knowledge scientists—and one in particular who has surveyed nearly all knowledge development systems used throughout history—Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten system is decidedly one that "stands out." The same scholar points out that the paper Luhmann wrote outlining his Zettelkasten can be regarded as the most advanced result of a long-lasting reflection performed in modern society on knowledge management.[13]

I contend that history's physical analog thinking systems evolved to their most advanced level with Luhmann's Zettelkasten system. Instead of carrying forth and developing from there, it essentially has been replaced with digital notetaking tools, which I contend are worse in many ways. The popularity of analog thinking tools has dwindled as a consequence, and their popularity has been supplanted with the usage of digital tools. Additionally, the actual evolution of analog thinking systems has seemingly stopped. I can only hope that my book will bring back some innovation in this space.

Each Component of Luhmann's Principles Are Unique and Combine to Create a Whole Bigger Than The Sum of Its Parts:

In my book, I'll detail the four principles that make Luhmann's system unique. The four principles combine to create the Antinet. When you interpret Luhmann's system loosely, it loses its luster and impact. One of its key impacts centers around its proclivity to transform from a memory replacement tool to a system that actually ends up enhancing memory—a so-called memory aid.

The four principles of the Antinet forces something called neuro-associative recall. Together, each aspect of the Antinet transforms it from a memory-storage system to a memory-supercharging system.

Luhmann echoes this notion. According to Luhmann, the Antinet forces one to file their thoughts (or "placing of the notes"). While it "takes time," according to Luhmann, it also does two things: (1) it helps enliven the "sheer monotony of reading," and (2) it "incidentally trains the memory."[14]

Why You Should Not Bother Learning about The Antinet:

Niklas Luhmann published a paper detailing his notebox system in the 1980s. The paper is titled, Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen ("Zettelkasten" is the German word for notebox). Luhmann's notebox system has become surprisingly popular in recent years with the publication of several books, and it's also become popularized through online communities.[15] Myths about Luhmann's system have also emerged, which will be covered in my book. However, one such myth is that Luhmann's system produces prolific amounts of writing—without the process of writing being difficult.

The author of perhaps the most popular book on Luhmann's Zettelkasten writes that Luhmann's productivity is impressive, yet even more amazing is that "[Luhmann] seemed to achieve all this with almost no real effort."[16] This is a false notion and will be explored later in the book. As a result, the Zettelkasten finds itself presented as a system that causes many people to overlook the actual realities of using it: the truth is that Luhmann worked night and day like a dog, and his writing and theoretical work was his life. To a large degree, he produced so much prolific work because his wife passed away, and he had a caretaker who cooked his meals and helped him raise his children. In brief, the Zettelkasten does not replace hard work; rather, it greatly enhances the depth of thought in one's work output; however, there's one caveat. Those who wish to use such a system must not shy away from the prospect of hard work.

Another thing one must consider is that an Antinet is something you should investigate if, and only if, you have adequate time. If you're under constant deadlines, for instance—daily deadlines, such as that experienced by a newspaper writer—an Antinet is probably not for you. Paradoxically, unlimited time is also not ideal either. You must have short-term projects as milestones. Luhmann had this in the form of peer-reviewed articles. While Luhmann's number of books published is impressive at 70, just as impressive is that Luhmann published 550 articles.[17] These served as short-term projects which helped him develop his thirty-year undertaking to devise a theory of everything in the field of sociology.

After Luhmann passed away, 200 more unpublished manuscripts were found amongst his possessions.[18] The sheer amount of Luhmann's output stands as one of the main selling points for the Zettelkasten system. It's a big part of what has attracted many people to the concept. Further, Luhmann continued to be productive even after he passed away with a half-dozen of his books published posthumously. One author writes that he knows more than a few colleagues who would give a lot to be as productive as Luhmann—even as productive as Luhmann was after he died![19]

However, here's the reality: Luhmann's books were poorly written. They are packed with very deep ideas; yet, reading Luhmann's work is a sleep-inducing experience. His books are extremely and unapologetically challenging to understand. They're convoluted with academic jargon and unnecessarily large words. Even Luhmann himself acknowledged the issues with his writing style. He had difficulty getting his work translated. From observing beginners and translators who tried reading his texts, Luhmann once remarked, "I have noticed how haphazardly I write—despite considerable care in preserving and refining theoretical coherences."[20]

One scholar considers Luhmann's social theory to be the best analysis of contemporary society presently available. Yet the scholar observes that Luhmann's work remains "far less prominent" than it ought to be. The reason? Luhmann's books were so poorly written.[21] This same scholar wrote an entire book dedicated to exploring Niklas Luhmann's theoretical work. Before even beginning the book he allocates a section dedicated to how and why Luhmann produced books that were so bad. Luhmann's word selection, style, and tone were that of an academic that gave lectures so dense that you left feeling like you didn't understand a thing. This gives you a glimpse of what reading Luhmann's work feels like. Luhmann's writing style is so thickly drenched in doctrinaire academic-prose that the scholar who wrote a book on Luhmann refers to his writing style as soporific, which means sleep-inducing.[22]

Why Luhmann's Books Were So Bad:

The reason why Niklas Luhmann's books were so bad centers around the following aspects:

Academic Pretentiousness Described The German Academic Climate of His Time:

Luhmann's dense academic writing style stood almost as a requirement in Luhmann's field if one were to be taken seriously. It was an "environment of academically pretentious soporific authors."[23] The greatness of one's work correlated directly with how inaccessible and difficult it was to penetrate.[24] In other words, the more ridiculously challenging it was to read one's work, the more respect the one who wrote it received—assuming the ideas weren't pure gibberish. Luhmann's work most certainly was not mere gibberish, either. It was deep, brilliant, unconventional, cross-disciplinary, and, astoundingly, quite valid.

Luhmann operated within the academically pretentious standard of Germany's academic environment. As a result, his books reflect his environment. One scholar states, "Luhmann (or rather, his writing) suffered from being too closely associated with the German academic elite at the time."[25]

Luhmann Barely Edited His Work:

"Once I've written [a manuscript]," Luhmann states in an interview, "I don't usually revise it."[26] In brief, Luhmann was not a perfectionist. He did not have a writing process like F. Scott Fitzgerald, wherein he would write books in longhand using a pencil in a notebook before typing the manuscript using a typewriter. Luhmann wrote his texts by hand on notecards, but he put little effort into making them cohesive and flow naturally. Luhmann was more concerned with just getting his work shipped, as imperfect as it was. "I don't have any notion of perfection when it comes to books and essays," Luhmann says, "like some people who think they have to write a definitive work with their first book."[27] Luhmann considers nearly all of his roughly 70 books, 550 articles, and 200 unpublished manuscripts as "version zero." The only book he does not hold as "version zero" is his Social Systems book (which took him some thirty years to write).[28] He created four major versions of his Social Systems book every decade: one in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.[29]

It may be overstating things to insinuate Luhmann never revised his manuscripts. In fact, he used to insert pages between pages of his drafts, similar to how he branched his notes in his Zettelkasten. For instance, one finds manuscripts with pages 1, 2, 2A, 2B, 3. The pages 2A and 2B were inserted as an afterthought.[30] Therefore, clearly, Luhmann did some editing after writing a manuscript.

Luhmann Desired to Be Impenetrable by the General Public for Fear of His Career Being Threatened:

There's a dark secret in Luhmann's life that isn't talked about much.[31] I will cover it in my book; however, it provides a perfectly understandable reason why Luhmann would want to remain impenetrable to the general public. Because Luhmann's positions in sociology are so complex, it is conceivable that the general public would place him in a dangerous category, which would threaten Luhmann's career. To mitigate such a risk, one can suppose Luhmann erred on the side of being highbrow so that only well-read intellectuals could decipher what he was saying. This risked fewer opportunities of mischaracterization from untrained readers in the social sciences.

Luhmann's writing style helped ensure that only academics proficient and trained in such a style would be capable of even attempting to understand his work. To illustrate this point, we can refer to an interview with Luhmann from 1973. The interviewer asks Luhmann what critics he fears most, and his reply is classic. "The stupid ones."[32] Luhmann's writing style did just that—it prevented the stupid ones from reading his work, and it's continued to do so long after he's passed.

Luhmann's Zettelkasten System Created a Deep Spider-like Network That Was Hard to Disentangle Using a Typewriter:

Even academics trained in reading dense prose could find themselves challenged by Luhmann's writing style. It stems from the complex, multidisciplinary webs of thought Luhmann's books dump onto the page. Luhmann proclaims, in a seemingly proud manner, that "there's no linearity, but a spider-like system that can be started anywhere."[33] Such a non-linear structure makes Luhmann's work something that is "not reader-friendly," according to one scholar.[34] Luhmann asserts that the non-linear nature of his work is a feature, not a bug. It enables one to pick up one of his books and start reading anywhere–such as the beginning or end of the book. Yet this assumes some familiarity with Luhmann's work. As one scholar points out, anyone can indeed begin reading anywhere, but they can't start understanding anywhere.[35] One can begin reading anywhere, assuming they're already well-versed in Luhmann's work. Becoming well-versed in Luhmann is hard to achieve if you start with Luhmann's books; however, it's been said that his lectures were easier to comprehend.[36]

There's no friendly initiation when you begin trying to read Luhmann's work. You're quickly confronted with unconventional, intimidating terminology. This terminology is packed with sudden chaotic shifts between ideas.[37] Want to know the best part about all this? Luhmann doesn't even bother to explain the unconventional terminology he introduces. He leaves you to embark on a mental journey down the complex jungle of intellectual self-discovery. One thing is certain: you better be prepared to bring your own map.

From books that contained such complex webs of ideas, one may be quick to blame Luhmann's Zettelkasten; however, that may be jumping to conclusions too quickly. Luhmann's environment certainly influenced the complex style Luhmann strived for in his texts. Yet, a darker secret perhaps influenced his decision not to be accessible by the public. There are a few other reasons why Luhmann's work is spider-like: one is out of principle, and the other is that Luhmann perhaps enjoyed being a troll. Let's cover such aspects now.

Luhmann Desired to Be Impenetrable for The Sake of Principle:

Luhmann brings forth the idea that not everything ought to be easy to understand. Luhmann once posed the question: "Should everything that is said be equally forced under the rod of comprehensibility?... Comprehensibility without effort? Understandable without any preparation, without any time thinking and deciphering?"[38] From this, Luhmann implies that one shouldn't expect all knowledge to be in a format that can be spoon-fed to those who are not committed to the work involved in understanding advanced thought. Advanced knowledge is something that must be earned, in other words. It does one injustice to make such knowledge so easily ingestible; doing such a thing waters down the impact knowledge can have on one's mind.

Perhaps this is just a cop-out by Luhmann. After all, it's easier to offload the cognitive work involved in simplifying ideas. But maybe Luhmann does have a point. It would decay some of the world's magic if all knowledge were trivial to ingest. Perhaps Luhmann's right in this respect.

Indeed, the more complex and impenetrable knowledge is, the more attractive it can become for those with a thirst for knowledge. The difficulty of deciphering Luhmann stands as the very thing that initially attracted Johannes Schmidt (the scholar heading up the digitization of Luhmann's literary estate). When Schmidt first came across Luhmann's work, he did not understand a word of it. Yet there are signs that Luhmann could have communicated more clearly if he chose to. As mentioned, Luhmann presented his ideas in a much more approachable manner when giving lectures.[39]

In making his texts challenging to decipher, Luhmann essentially filtered out and disqualified those he could care less about—i.e., people who weren't serious and committed to putting in the work required to engage with theoretical sociology.

For those serious about social theory, the complexity of Luhmann counterintuitively seemed to serve as the key attraction. From there, he sucked people into The Matrix of Sociology, if you will.

In an interview with Johannes Schmidt conducted by a man who runs a podcast covering complex philosophical and social concepts, they both shared the same experience when first encountering Luhmann: "When you first read Luhmann, on the one hand, you don't understand at all, but on the other hand that makes you want to!"[40]

We could refer to this as the phenomenon of complexity attraction—referring to the event wherein complexity serves as an attraction mechanism for those passionate about a field.

Another example of complexity attraction is illustrated by the author of the book, The Radical Luhmann. He recounts a story in which an academic friend of his missed a talk by a guest lecturer in philosophy. When the friend asked another academic who attended the conference how it was, the person replied in all seriousness, "It was awesome—I did not understand a word!"[41]

Luhmann Desired to Be Impenetrable for The Sake of Being an Irreverent Troll:

Luhmann's character is described as an obscure, ironical, radical thinker.[42] Perhaps today we'd consider him a bit of a troll. Luhmann has some trollish tendencies, covered later in my book. Luhmann's theories were often quite paradoxical and, after long explanations, pointed back to itself and the beginning of where it started. He was fascinated with self-referential systems wherein the beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning. His Zettelkasten system reflected such ideas, which is somewhat unsurprising.

In brief, one should not get caught up in the idea that the Zettelkasten will magically enable you to spit out a massive amount of books or papers that are instant classics and perfect. It can undoubtedly produce excellent work; however, the sizeable amount of work Luhmann produced largely also comes from the fact that he lightly edited his work. Furthermore, his work was tangled in a spider-like web. Some of this is due to his Zettelkasten, which is due to the aforementioned variables.

In my opinion, there's a healthy balance for how to use a Zettelkasten system. It centers around the age-old balance of quality vs. quantity. The Antinet's main benefit centers on its ability to develop thoughts thoroughly. It truly does help create profound ideas; however, you must also be prepared to take the time to edit your work and make it readable for your audience—if that is, you wish to appeal to general readers. Instead of publishing seventy books, if Luhmann had instead focused on making, say, ten books (and thus took the additional time to make his ideas easier to digest) perhaps his theoretical work would be much more popular than it remains today.

Using an Antinet will enable you to develop and get out all of the crazy, other-worldly thoughts from your mind into a rumination system that allows it to grow. From there, its complexity will grow. You can certainly decide to forego simplifying your text for the general reader. Or, you can use such a system to enable you to offload the complexity that usually lives in your mind so that you can then create a more reader-friendly, more straightforward version for your audience. It's entirely up to you.

It's essential to keep all of this in mind when deciding whether or not you wish to build your own Antinet. When using an Antinet, your ideas and thoughts will indeed be developed to a greater degree than they otherwise would. Yet, it also means that the complexity and entanglements of your ideas will also grow, thus requiring much editing to make your work digestible.

Assuming I haven't scared you away at this point, let's now move on to why one would opt for an Antinet in the first place. Let's talk about where the Antinet shines.

Where The Antinet Truly Shines:

The entire point of using an Antinet centers around producing unconventional, deeply evolved thoughts. Certain aspects of an Antinet ensure unconventional, deeply evolved thoughts emerge from the system, and these areas are where it shines in comparison to other knowledge systems.

Producing Genius-level Work Through Creative Insights and Unconventional Interactions:

Let's start from the end-result of what an Antinet aims to produce and then work backward from there.

An Antinet aims to produce genius-level work. Plain and simple.

To produce genius-level work, one must unlock creative insights that otherwise would remain disconnected in their field. As a thinker, your goal centers not on hitting targets that others find difficult to hit but to hit targets that others can't even see. This comes about by unlocking creative insights.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb observes that the primary reason for America's dominance in the global economy (with companies like Apple, Amazon, Nike, Google, Facebook, etc.) all stems from one key strength: creativity.[43]

The question then becomes: how does one unlock creative insights within their field?

Unlocking creative insights stem from one thing: unconventional interactions. The requirement for something to be unconventional centers on randomness mixed with a sense of paradoxical awe and wonder in that such an insight, by appropriate measure, is seemingly true. The requirement for interactions is comparison. That is, one must be able to relate and associate concepts. This primes similar ideas to be nested and neighbored around one another so that when an unconventional link is connected to a neighborhood, it creates unexpected ideas that emerge from viewing it in context with its neighboring cards.

At the center of innovation rests the idea of two seemingly different concepts, from two seemingly different contexts, interacting to create something bigger than either of those two concepts individually. This rests as a central idea of Communication Theory—a field Luhmann's work was deeply rooted in; Luhmann understood this concept quite well. Innovation and breakthroughs in thinking happen when two different parts, with different goals and perspectives, communicate and create new meaning.[44] This is related to the concept of emergence in systems theory, in which new properties and behaviors emerge when individual parts interact in the broader whole.

Such phenomena seem to occur more profoundly within a system such as an Antinet. Unlike digital systems (which have the tendency of being overflooded with too much information), an analog thinking system seems to surface fewer interactions yet much more meaningful interactions, which, in turn, surface creative insights that are not replicable by its digital cousins.

The Antinet Shines When One Desires to Develop a Long-term Thesis or Series of Work in an Area (Such as a Thirty-Year Thesis):

The reason why Luhmann created his Zettelkasten in the first place is two-fold.

First, Luhmann set out to create a system for retrieving things forgotten by memory. Yet after a certain point, as early as 1981, Luhmann discovered its true power—it became a thinking tool and communication partner that emerged almost as if it were its own mind or ghost in a box. This will be covered in my book. More pertinent right now is the second reason Luhmann started his Antinet.

The second reason Luhmann started his Antinet centers around his main objective: to embark upon a thirty-year-long quest to excavate a theory of everything as it relates to human society.

Authors like Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday have publicly shared their notecard systems, yet their systems are quite trivial compared to an Antinet. They're organized by topic or book title. They were created primarily for writing one book, which are projects lasting a year or several years. Their notebox systems were not architected for projects with a time span of three decades. A short-term project is more straightforward to scope than a thirty-year theory of everything. This likely explains why Greene and Holiday's notebox systems don't seem to restrict them. However, when you're trying to categorize and scope a project which will last thirty years, you must embrace chaos. You cannot hope to have the categories you start out with be perfectly ordered and arranged by topic forever. You can't expect to have the notebox ascribe to some set of organized sections in the long term. The thoughts and ideas must emerge as your research grows. Knowledge will spout from trees and branches of thought in unconventional places.

There are other problems with category-based notebox systems, however. Each time you finish a book, the cards live only in the silo of that project. A great Berlin Wall is seemingly hoisted around the project, preventing future work from smoothly referencing its parts. It's forever walled off from the other future projects you embark upon. Its fruitful and potent ideas remain blocked from colliding with ideas in future work you create. As a result, you cannot experience the cumulative compounding miracle the Antinet seems innately built for.

The compounding miracle cannot be unleashed if you have to start over from scratch every time you start a new book. There's evidence that Holiday has to do this each time he starts a new book.[45]

Luhmann recognized this, which is one reason he architected his Antinet in such a way. "I started the index card file," Luhmann explains, "because it was obvious to me I would have to plan for a lifetime not for a book."[46]

In brief, the Antinet is best for long-term projects and also if you intend to leverage the miracle of compounding your ideas over a thirty-year-plus timeframe. That doesn't mean you must commit to working on one project for thirty years; instead, it means you must commit to having your work compound and interact with one another over thirty years (this is made possible by way of the Antinet's structure).

Other problems with categorical-based notebox systems will be outlined later on in the book.

The Antinet Shines In Surfacing Structured Accidents:

The Antinet enables one to slow down their mind and develop their thoughts. It also shines in that doing this stimulates one to think of associated ideas and then link to those ideas in the note. Some confuse this (the concept of linking) as the unique benefit of Luhmann's system; however, this is not the case.

The practice of reading something and writing the idea immediately into a digital markdown file and then linking that file to some other idea is not what is meant by unconventional interactions. For something to be an unconventional interaction it must genuinely be unconventional. Nearly anyone can search their digital notes to find keywords related to the current idea they just wrote down and link that idea. The idea of simply linking your notes in this way is a misinterpretation that plagues countless numbers of people in the digital Zettelkasten world.

For instance, one author who wrote a book about digital Zettelkästen outlines the advantage of the system, stating that you activate your mind's "associative" machine when you think of a related concept in your mind, which "collides" with another related idea.[47] While this is true to a degree, it largely misses the mark. Here's why:

The point of the Antinet centers around serving as a thinking machine, a thought development system, and as an extended memory. The system forces the user to think of what the keyterm you would use to describe a concept. Only after this critical step do you look up the concept and go through your notes and compare and remind yourself of the things you've forgotten in the process. The magic of an Antinet does not center on one's ability to think about what a new concept you've already read relates to (as that's a conventional interaction, not an unconventional interaction). Rather, as Luhmann puts it, its magic stems from "interactions that were never planned, never preconceived, or conceived" by your current way of thinking.[48]

The magic of innovation and unlocking creativity stems from the possibility of (1) making relations using the term you're currently thinking of, but more importantly (2) the analog nature of the system with its tree-structure (which you'll learn about later in the book), ends up inducing structured accidents that are otherwise impossible to replicate.[49]

This is why it's critical, in Luhmann's words, that your "selection and comparisons are not identical with the schema of searching for them."[50] Why is this the case? Because simply searching for a keyword robs the potential for innovation to occur not through seeing what you felt was related in that moment, but the ingenious, unconventional discoveries you make along the way navigating to the nearby cards, and nearby branches of thought that have emerged and evolved around the cards you're looking for. This tree-like structure, which is what the Antinet is comprised of, is what helps unlock truly unconventional interactions. The concept of the tree-like structure is something to be covered in detail later in my book.

Warm regards,

Scott P. Scheper

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  1. I have since discontinued the podcast, yet I continue to publish a piece of content every day as part of a deliberate commitment. You can still listen to the podcast here: ↩︎

  2. According to Yuval Noah Harari, a bestselling author, and profoundly independent thinker, "We need to know ourselves better and we need to develop this mental flexibility. Not as a kind of hobby for the side. This is really the most important quality or skill to just survive the upheavals in the coming decades." See Condé Nast, "The Most Important Survival Skill for the Next 50 Years Isn't What You Think," GQ, September 30, 2018, ↩︎

  3. "Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann," accessed May 5, 2021, "The slip box becomes a universal instrument. You can place almost everything in it, and not just ad hoc and in isolation, but with internal possibilities of connection with other contents." Also, "It becomes a sensitive system that internally reacts to many ideas, as long as they can be noted down." ↩︎

  4. "Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann," accessed May 5, 2021, "The slip box becomes a universal instrument. You can place almost everything in it, and not just ad hoc and in isolation, but with internal possibilities of connections with other contents." ↩︎

  5. Delfino, Devon. "20 Writing Statistics." Writer, November 11, 2020. ↩︎

  6. "UNESCO: Facts and Figures: Human Resources," UNESCO: Facts and figures: Human resources, n.d., ↩︎

  7. Yeo, Richard. Notebooks, Recollection, and External Memory: Some Early Modern English Ideas and Practices. (Brill, 2016), 138. ↩︎

  8. Krajewski, Markus, Michael Buckland, and Jonathan Furner. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. Translated by Peter Krapp. History and Foundations of Information Science. (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2011), 322. ↩︎

  9. Krajewski, Markus, Michael Buckland, and Jonathan Furner. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. Translated by Peter Krapp. History and Foundations of Information Science. (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2011), 312. ↩︎

  10. Cevolini, Alberto, ed. Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe. Library of the Written Word, volume 53. Leiden ; (Boston: Brill, 2016), 12. ↩︎

  11. Cevolini, Alberto, ed. Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe. Library of the Written Word, volume 53. Leiden ; (Boston: Brill, 2016), 12. ↩︎

  12. “Zettelkasten Online Paper by Niklas Luhmann: Communication with a Notebox (Revised Edition).” Accessed August 3, 2021. Luhmann referred to this personality as an "alter ego." ↩︎

  13. Cevolini, Alberto, ed. Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe. Library of the Written Word, volume 53. Leiden ; (Boston: Brill, 2016), 26. ↩︎

  14. Niklas Luhmann Short Cuts (English), 83. See the last chapter or Short Cuts (available in German). ↩︎

  15. Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes; also ↩︎

  16. Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017), 15. ↩︎

  17. Schmidt, Johannes. "Niklas Luhmann's Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine." Forgetting Machines. Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe 53 (2016), 289; Vanderstraeten, Raf. "Luhmann on Socialization and Education." Educational Theory 50 (January 25, 2005): 1–23. ↩︎

  18. Undisciplined, Archiving Luhmann w/ Johannes Schmidt, 2021,, 24:30. ↩︎

  19. Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017), 14. ↩︎

  20. Niklas Luhmann, Short Cuts (English), 82. ↩︎

  21. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 3. ↩︎

  22. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 3. ↩︎

  23. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 15. ↩︎

  24. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 14. ↩︎

  25. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 14. ↩︎

  26. Niklas Luhmann Short Cuts (English), 17. ↩︎

  27. Niklas Luhmann Short Cuts (English), 17. ↩︎

  28. Niklas Luhmann Short Cuts (English), 17. ↩︎

  29. Undisciplined, Archiving Luhmann w/ Johannes Schmidt, 2021,, 21:40 and 28:58. ↩︎

  30. Undisciplined, Archiving Luhmann w/ Johannes Schmidt, 2021,, 48:30. ↩︎

  31. This "dark secret" of Luhmann's life is ommitted from Sönke Ahrens' book How to Take Smart Notes, as well as from popular websites like ↩︎

  32. holgersen911, Niklas Luhmann - Observer in the Crow’s Nest (Eng Sub), 2012,, 12:40. ↩︎

  33. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 11. ↩︎

  34. Niklas Luhmann Short Cuts (English), 11. ↩︎

  35. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 11-12. ↩︎

  36. Undisciplined, Archiving Luhmann w/ Johannes Schmidt, 2021,, 4:00. ↩︎

  37. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 11ff. ↩︎

  38. Niklas Luhmann, Short Cuts (English), 6. ↩︎

  39. Undisciplined, Archiving Luhmann w/ Johannes Schmidt, 2021,, 4:00. ↩︎

  40. Undisciplined, Archiving Luhmann w/ Johannes Schmidt, 2021,, 6:50. ↩︎

  41. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). ↩︎

  42. Hans-Georg Moeller, The Radical Luhmann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). ↩︎

  43. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2nd ed., Random trade pbk. ed (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010), 64. ↩︎

  44. "Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann," accessed May 5, 2021, "Information, accordingly, originates only in systems which possess a comparative schema—even if this amounts only to: "this or something else." For communication, we do not have to presuppose that both parties use the same comparative schema. The effect of surprise even increases when this is not the case and when we believe that a message means something (or is useful) against the background of other possibilities." ↩︎

  45. Ryan Holiday, "The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read," RyanHoliday.Net (blog), April 1, 2014, For instance, one can observe a dedicated box of notecards being created for Holiday's book, The Obstacle is The Way. ↩︎

  46. Johannes Schmidt, "Niklas Luhmann's Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine," Forgetting Machines. Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe 53 (2016), 290. ↩︎

  47. David Kadavy, Digital Zettelkasten: Principles, Methods, & Examples, Kindle Edition (Kadavy, Inc.), 35. "By trying to think of how to describe the passage in my own words, I activate the associative machine, which often causes the current idea to collide with some other idea in my mind. Associative thinking promotes a positive mood, so it shouldn't be a surprise how fun this task is. If writing a passage makes me think of something related, I write it in parentheses." ↩︎

  48. "Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann," accessed May 5, 2021, "The slip box provides combinatorial possibilities which were never planned, never preconceived, or conceived in this way." ↩︎

  49. "Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann," accessed May 5, 2021, "The communication with the slip box becomes fruitful only at a high level of generalization, namely that of establishing communicative relations of relations. And it becomes productive only at the moment of evaluation, and is thus bound to a certain time and is to a high degree accidental." ↩︎

  50. "Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann," accessed May 5, 2021, "This effect of innovation is based on the one hand on the circumstance that the query provokes possibilities of making relations which could not be traced prior to it. On the other hand, it is based also on the fact that the internal horizons of selection and comparisons are not identical with schema of searching for them." ↩︎


Wednesday 2:33 pm