A.11, The Zettelkasten as a private Archive


Since I was a child I have tried different techniques to store information. I have used diaries, notebooks and exercise books in which I have entered data. For example, I had a notebook in which I entered my height and weight every day, after I had measured myself with a scale and a meter stick. I wanted to know exactly how tall I was and if the height was related to my weight. This is something every scientist learns in university or college. Scientific work. I already did this as a child without being aware (or my parents) of what good prerequisites for a scientific career I already had as a child.

At some point I got my first computer and I created heaps of folders and files. Until then I didn’t have a complex system, but sorted everything into topics. School, leisure, vacation or fun were typical folders on my Rechenknecht. I learned to move around the system, create folders, delete them or move them within my structure. At that time, the computer was a very powerful tool because it had an incredible number of advantages. The adults around me didn’t know how to use a computer and so I had the possibility to write down personal thoughts, too. I could be sure that these were not read, because only I knew how this technical magic thing worked. This gave me a personal freedom and also power over my personal data.

In the fifth grade, I was able to get my hands on an Amiga 500. What a change, I could store my data on a mobile system. I now had floppy disks and could go to the Amiga Club of our school with the device and play games there. During breaks I could go to the library to a TV and store information on my mobile device from books that I needed for homework. This was a massive development for me when it came to storing data. I could now sort floppy disks by subject. Games, notes, personal, and homework. I have always been one of those kids who always used any technology first.

In the first training I had my first real computer. Some kind of Windows system. Even then there were rumors offline in the trainee school about how much power Bill Gates actually has and why there is no alternative to Windows. Yes, that was before Linus Torvalds started to change the world of operating systems. I learned HTML and how to break Windows rules. I didn’t have a purchased version (which I couldn’t afford as a teenager) and I didn’t like the operating system either. Everything was cumbersome and I had no chance to establish a decent system. It got worse when I connected the computer to the Internet for the first time and data was sent all the time. At that time I had no education in computer science, so everything was incomprehensible. How much of this data was sent to America and ended up on Bill Gates’ desk where he could read it.

A notebook can be trusted. It’s just a notebook. If I then encrypt the data with a secret language, for example, almost no one can read it, or would have to invest so much time that it may no longer be worth it. At this point I also realized that there is no 100% secure encryption and everything should be considered as a layer. What good is it if I encrypt something on a Windows computer, if it is quite easy for the manufacturer to decrypt it again. He can already see which encryption system I use or install to secure my data. Besides, you should never trust a manufacturer, even if they mean well. Even the manufacturers can become victims of attacks that they didn’t know about or would rather keep quiet about because otherwise it would damage the company’s reputation.

At some point there was Linux and I could build up trust in my computer again. Of course, even a Linux distribution is not immune to attacks or security holes, but you have to divide a problem into smaller problems and then solve them one by one. I had to remove Bill from my system first. I had done that. Now I had to deal more with encryption. It works quite well, but unfortunately after a few years I was no longer satisfied with it. Why? Computer technology was developing so fast that I couldn’t buy smartphones, laptops or computers as fast as they were released. Besides, I didn’t feel like it anymore, and at some point I didn’t want to be the first to have the newest smartphone. Anyway, I started to store a lot of my data on my smartphone, which unfortunately became more and more of a data trap in the last few years.

Even the dumbest person has realized at some point that smartphones are not there to make our lives easier, to organize data or to offer helpful applications. Smartphones are there to suck even more data out of our lives. Everything we manage, save and sort is stored in databases distributed on servers all over the world. People and companies gain authorized and unauthorized access and further process this data. Sometimes because we have given consent, the content of the contract which we have not read or understood or because we were simply too lazy to care about our privacy. Most people don’t understand what’s going on in the background anymore, and even large corporations seem to have lost control of what’s going on in some places when new products are tried that lead to total system failure in some places.

I also have the problem with Linux that the system has become too complex for me. Arch is already minimalistic, but still there is no hundred percent secure system. Intelligence agencies not only have the power, but also the capital to infiltrate even heavy systems. Some problems are best solved by simply throwing more money at the problem. And here then lies the crux. Can I even trust my, under all security precautions, installed Linux distribution? No. Unfortunately not. But I have to, because otherwise I would not be allowed to use any computer. So I have to find a compromise between trust and mistrust. A compromise that allows me to work with a computer, but not to trust it 100%. That’s how I worked with my data until 2018. I put my smartphone in storage in 2017 and replaced it with a phone that can only text and make calls. That’s enough to work, because every app you install is a node from which data can be tapped. In 2018, I had dealt with Dave Winer and learned that he is the nephew of Arno Otto Schmidt. Nothing unusual, because we are all nephews of someone. Some are just a little more famous and have their own entry in an online encyclopedia. From this name I came to the other following interesting people. Walter Kempowski, a German writer. Hans Blumenberg, a German philosopher. Friedrich Adolf Kittler, a German literary scholar. Aby Warburg, an art historian. Paul Otlet, who can be called a pioneer of information management. Martin Gardner, a science journalist. Richard Wossidlo, a German high school professor and Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist and social theorist and the most important German-speaking representative of sociological systems theory. What do these people have in common? A Zettelkasten. I drifted into a whole new world of information management.

At first, I dealt with Luhmann’s Zettelkasten and adopted the administrative system he developed. In the course of the time I recognized however that the system of a Zettelkasten reflects also the internal thought system of the Zettelkasten possessing human. I was not Niklas Luhmann and will also never be it, why I use his Zettelkasten system? I adapted some parts and changed the system to my own working rhythm and thoughts. I had a new system in which I could store data and it was so logically and sensibly structured that it seemed almost how easily I could work with it. And I noticed something else. It respected my data protection and privacy. All the data I sorted into my so far A.291 departments in the almost 4000 slips and linked together knew only me. For all other people, it seems like a system of jumbled notes that give no context. But when I fly my fingers through the individual sections, complex thought structures build up in my brain that enable me to write a complete essay about information management and privacy within a day, because I never once researched anything on the Internet before I wrote the first draft. None of the data entered in my Zettelkasten has been carried out over the edge it small cardboard box. Everything remains in its place.

After years I have finally found a (so far) excellent management system for my data that also protects my privacy. No large corporation, no politician, no intelligence agency can access this data and even if they could, they would have to understand the system in which it was sorted and that might be more difficult than some data-hungry people can imagine. The future of data storage will be offline, protected by government access, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Protected by the irresponsible collection of data that you simply don’t have the right to. Use public data and protect private data. It may be a cumbersome system, just like communicating on a spaceship in the Battlestar Galactica series but it’s worth it in the long run. Of course, it’s not a 100% secure system either and has other drawbacks. It is very difficult to transport, susceptible to water and fire damage[Vintage2022] and if a secret service were to break in secretly, I would have a hard time protecting that as well. There are always vulnerabilities and as I wrote above, you always have to make compromises in your life. You can’t live in a perfect world, no matter how much you wish you could.

I have decided to consider my Zettelkasten as a private archive, which I can protect from unauthorized access better than a computer scientist his computer. It always depends on the levels you want to protect and how you can best implement the system in reality. With my system I have not only found a formidable management system of my thoughts, comments, data and information but I can also be sure that this is no longer read, stored, managed and controlled by Amazon, Google, Meta or Apple and many other corporations. It is my private system and I am the sole owner of this data. The raw data I manage only develops into meaningful information, like this essay, through my processing. I make this essay available to the public to promote further thoughts and new theories, the rest remains in my private archive.