I’ve missed the latest IndieWeb popup gathering on digital gardens and streams (thanks Frank for bringing that up). Thankfully, they are intricate note-takers, and it always pays off to poke around in those. As avid journaler, the subject naturally appeals to me. In fact, you could say that Brain Baking is my digital garden. Or is it?
First, what’s a digital garden? Simply put, it is your (1) personal (2) online space to (3) write down notes and (4) connect them—as Dennis Seidel defined it in his garden. Those four things are important:
- Personal: These are your own private thoughts. But are they private? Once the community starts discussing digital gardens, they tend to want to share them. The rise of Roam and Obsidian made it easy to (self-)publish these, but even before that, people have been setting up wikis and blogs for the very same reason.
- Online: It’s called a digital garden for a reason.
- Write down notes: the collecting part.
- Connect notes: the value-creating part.
Collecting thoughts isn’t exactly new. Cicero did it, Michelangelo did it, John Locke did it, Charles Darwin did it. Their methods do not differ much from modern digital gardeners. Or do they? Which of the above four things is essential? Only the last two are: find a way to write down your thoughts and go through them and manage to create novel insights.
Why digital is overrated
Whether they are codexes, memexes, or genexes: it all boils down to store knowledge outside of your brain and (regularly) reprocess them. I dare to say that technology, such as the World Wide Web that features linked documents, aren’t all that compelling. I just as easily reference to other pages and books on the analog notes I write down. Sure, refactor and move tools greatly simplify structure, and digital text is easily searchable. But for every
[[linked]] article you produce, clutter is introduced that is called syntax. Furthermore, a lot of people struggle with actually tending to the garden: cutting branches, moving plants. The end result is usually a mess.
One of the biggest disadvantages of digital gardens, to me, is exactly the fact that it’s structured. That is, articles—whether they are blog posts or wiki pages do not matter—are still mainly text-based. You can’t quickly draw rectangles or arrows next to your notes. You can’t draw an eukaryote and point to its nucleus to explain that that’s where the DNA chromosome strings are coiled up (sorry, I’ve been doing some yeast cell research). You can’t print photos or cut out parts from newspapers to paste it besides a schematic. You can’t grab your watercolor paint and brighten up a page. You can’t paste your cat’s whisker in your notebook (for research purposes, of course!). You can’t smear out a blueberry or wet tea leaf to try and capture its smell and color.
Another advantage that tends to be dismissed is (s)low tech: off-screen time. I already spend way too much time clutched behind a PC. I prefer to go through my notes on a bench in the park without the artificial light of an LCD screen. Speaking about benches: capturing fleeting thoughts only works if you hold on to your writing tools at all times. I hope you leave your technological trinkets outside the bedroom, but I suspect few of us do.
I’ve been using a combination of Sublime Text and Obsidian extensively for my PhD research, so don’t get me wrong, I love digital editors and connectors. But compared to my fountain pen and my notebook, they severely hamper my thoughts. Of course, to get anything published, whether it is an academic paper or a blog article, you’ll need to convert your thoughts to ASCII.
I do not refactor my analog notes. That’s impossible unless you bring out the scissors. Instead, I rewrite things, cross things through, and reference to both previous pages and previous books a lot. To do that, I digitize and annotate my journal pages. So digital does help to archive, but it is far from the best way to assist my thinking.
Why public is overrated
Public digital gardens are overrated. They are very hard to navigate. Time and time again, I get lost in the jungle of mystical links, in the check-ins drowned in the bookmarks and the quotes. Fancy IndieWeb sites that boast 5 separate RSS feeds to “help” navigate the labyrinth do not make it better. I’ve tried following multiple interesting people that pump loads and loads of seemingly cool looking stuff into their site. It always ends in confusion. Yes, sometimes I discover a link to another published article (external to the garden, by the way!) that is interesting. As admiring as the garden is, the things they grow there are almost always puzzling.
But the most important reason why I think they’re not that useful to others, is exactly that: they’re personal. That is, you’ll have to make the translation between their context and your context. And that always and inevitably means important messages get lost in translation. It’s fun to fool around in someone’s garden, but if you have no clue what to do with tropical seeds in your own temperate climate powered garden, then don’t bother.
Many famous journals were never meant to be published and have to be heavily edited to produce an interesting coherent text. Hilarious letters from Madame de Sévigné or depressing ones from Vincent van Gogh are the exception, since they were written to be read by others, although not the general public.
Digital Gardens or Blogs?
That is why I think that most digital gardens are not blogs. Again, there are exceptions, like some articles in Tracy Durnell’s, but on average, digital gardens contain slices of context-heavy information processed by someone else’s mind. Only after the translation into something publishable, like a blog post, they become interesting for others to read. I have little use for countless of “collected” links and likes. Published Obisidan Vaults look cool, but the initial excitement wears off pretty quickly.
Cory Doctorow has been calling his blog his Outboard Brain since 2002. Outboard brain, not Second brain. He must have had notes—either in his head, on paper, or digitally—before being able to put the message out there. Quite a few people reach for Wordpress to build their digital garden nowadays, and although Wordpress is the de facto blogging tool, the result is all but a blog.
I much prefer others' blogs, in the classic sense of the word (let’s ignore parasitic corporate blogs). These are interesting because they are coherent—or at least, should be. They are about others' passion for whatever that drives them. Which might spike my own interest. And then, perhaps, maybe, could end up in my own notebook.
With the help of a pen, of course.