July 15, 2023
I’m obsessed with information management. From my research on the preservation of LGBTQ history in Louisville to my professional and technical communication teaching that emphasizes tools and technologies for increased knowledge management and efficiency, I’ve always been fascinated by how information management techniques can make life more, well, manageable. Even my love of Hugo, branded as “a content manager’s dream,” reflects this passion.
Information management–here broadly including content management/strategy, knowledge management, and personal knowledge management–is often seen as a mundane task that simply sets the stage for the creative process. To me, though, organizing information is nine-tenths of the creative process itself. The decisions we make as we manage the information we come into contact with are the creative process. “Inspiration” is, really, just a word we came up with to label their effect.
Serendipity exists, of course. But serendipity has more to do with creatively setting the conditions for discovery than with the mythological moment of “eureka.” There have been several methods, processes, and tools offered to set these conditions. One of the most interesting ones, though, is Nelson’s imagined “ELF” system.
In 1965, Ted Nelson published a paper titled “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate.” Beyond coining the word “hypertext,” this paper theorized a system for information management that Nelson called an Evolutionary List File (ELF). Nelson found computer programs at the time to underemphasize the iterative and inventive phases of thinking and writing (136b) and proposed the ELF, “a file structure that can be shaped into various forms, changed from one arrangement to another in accordance with the user’s changing need” (137b), as a hypothetical alternative.
At root, the ELF would be a bundle of nested lists, where information could be quickly stored and accessed. While it was writing-oriented, it was not an outlining system in the way that many list-based writing tools were and still are today. Instead of creating a hierarchical outline, an ELF user would iteratively link items together to form new connections over time (138a). Rather than sorting information into discrete folders, as we still mainly do today, we would focus instead on creating connections.
The effects of this system, described by Nelson, would include:
I find Nelson’s structure interesting because it offers such clear insights into the relationship between technology and creativity that are still relevant today.
Nelson believed that any storage or writing system that creates friction with change and iteration is fundamentally at odds with creative practice. He wrote:
Human ideas, science, scholarship, and language are constantly collapsing and unfolding. Any field, and the corpus of all fields, is a bundle of relationships subject to all kinds of twists, inversions, involutions, and rearrangement: these changes are frequent but unpredictable. . . . [P]erhaps here, as in biology, the only ultimate structure is change itself" (144a, 144b).
For Nelson, any system of thinking that assumes “true or ideal or permanent codes and categories” is at odds with human thinking and creative practice. In other words. Categorization is provisional, which should be reflected in our systems of thinking and writing (144b). The ELF, though hypothetical at the time, was one way to embrace change in information management.
Today, the personal knowledge management movement (PKM) has called more attention to the problems that Nelson described, sometimes uncannily so. For example, the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, invented by Niklas Luhmann and more recently popularized in the note-taking book How to Take Smart Notes, seems almost identical to one comment about ELF made by Nelson:
By assigning entries to lists, the ELF may be used as a glorified card file, with separate lists used for categories, trails, etc. This permits extensive cross-indexing by the assignment of one entry into different lists. It permits subsets and sub-sequences for any use to be held apart and examined without disturbing the lists from which they have been drawn, by copying them onto other, new lists. (140a)
So many of the new conversations in personal knowledge management, such as Zettelkasten/Smart Notes and the PARA method, focus on the limitations of file structures that Nelson was identifying in 1965 but that are still reflected in many of our digital habits today.
Why does all this matter? Creating hierarchies and outlines of information can be useful, but many don’t realize that outlines have to work on existing material; they are not creative practices themselves (Nelson 135b). This is why the common myth we tell ourselves and our students that an outline should be worked on before writing at best makes little sense and at worst is cruel; how can we outline ideas we haven’t created yet?
Luckily, within the last several years there have been many tools and strategies that allow individuals to experiment with alternatives to hierarchical information structures. For example, nearly all of my creative activity makes use of the Zettelkasten method, with Obsidian being the main tool. Rather than laying out my full method of information management–which I surely will at some point–here are a few resources and tools that have taken up the spirit of Nelson’s paper.
These books, articles, and resources offer ways of thinking about organizing information in non-hierarchical, creative ways.
These tools and technologies include affordances for non-hierarchical information management, such as backlinking.
Nelson, Theodore H. “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate.” The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, MIT P, 2003, pp. 134–45.