How Carl Linnaeus Almost Invented Kards More Than 200 Years Ago

8 OCTOBER 2014 by JÜRGEN

Until recently I believed that information overload was a fairly recent phenomenon. I was wrong. 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus didn't only experience information overload, but also discovered a method of dealing with it. If he had access to computers, he might well have invented Kards. Recounting his discoveries will lead us directly to the fundamental structure of how Kards work.

Linnaeus managed a huge network of correspondents and traveling students that spanned the globe. New discoveries would reach his desk on an almost daily basis (sound familiar?) and all of this information had to be integrated with what was already known to ensure that seemingly new species had not already been described elsewhere.

Linnaeus' work wasn't just motivated by a scholar's curiosity but had serious economic applications. Exotic plants were studied for their medical properties as well as whether and how they might be cultivated in chilly northern Europe. Clearly, it was very important to develop better technologies — paper technologies — to deal with the situation.

Carl Linnaeus didn't only experience information overload, but also discovered a method of dealing with it.

Back then, discoveries were published through so-called commonplace books, which collected concepts and facts along a common theme. Material in commonplace books was carefully arranged by subject and category, and often contained extensive indexes. Commonplace books — typically published by established scholars after decades of study — were considered definitive sources on the given subject, inspiring a certain sense of completeness.

Among the authors of such commonplace books, Carl Linnaeus was an exception. With the rate at which new information washed up on his desk he must have lost faith in the possibility of complete knowledge. He decided to publish his commonplace book on plant life early on in his career, fully aware that it was incomplete and that he would have to publish revisions later on. He invented something that's now rather common in the world of software: versioning.

The next problem to solve was finding a way to organize the facts he collected in a way that would facilitate the creation of corrected and extended versions of his book. It took him his entire career to devise a complete solution, and in the process, he invented modern biological taxonomy and nomenclature. The key to his solution was a workflow based on labeled slips of paper, each sized 7.5 x 13 cm. Later these slips of paper would become known as index cards.

Each paper slip contained information about a single species and was labeled at the top with a taxonomic classification of that species. The body of the card was reserved for specific details. This allowed information to be shuffled around, collated, and rearranged readily. Each card remained individually intact, no matter how much the system as a whole suffered from additions and re-arrangements.

Kards works like a web browser; but instead of the web, Kards allows you to browse your own personal knowledge.

For such an approach to work, it is critical that each paper slip be only about a single thing — a species in Linnaeus' case — and that it is carefully labeled in a way that facilitates later rearrangement.

And there we have it. This is basically how Kards works. Kards has a new interface — the digital knowledge card — which encourages users to enter only one — appropriately labeled — piece of information at a time. These knowledge cards are then automatically compiled into a “book”. We're not talking about a real book, nor do we suggest that its content needs to be sequentially ordered. Even commonplace books were organized by subject and category and not meant to be read cover to cover. Their linear ordering was an unnecessary limitation of the paper-based medium, and there is no need to bring this limitation over into the digital space. In fact, we already have a much better model: Kards works like a web browser; but instead of the web, Kards allows you to browse your own personal knowledge.

I imagine it was easy for Linnaeus to come up with the idea of using paper slips that only talked about a single species. The hard part was to find a great way of labeling his paper slips. The fact that his labeling system became the standard for modern biological taxonomy and nomenclature speaks to the depth of his invention.

With Kards we faced a similar problem. Relatively early on, we realized that we should be working with pieces of information instead of whole documents. But how could we label them in a way that would facilitate later compilation into a browsable book? The problem is that we didn't want to limit Kards to only work with a specific topic. We could have created a movies app, a quotes app, a recipes app, a bookmark manager, a finder replacement, etc. But we didn't want to do that. No more silos of information! And therein lay another challenge: how to create a taxonomy for the whole world?

We could have created a movies app, a quotes app, a recipes app, a bookmark manager, a finder replacement, etc. But we didn't want to do that.

Fortunately we didn't have to solve this problem on our own. For millennia millions of people were already working on the solution: our own language. With that problem solved, another one appears. How do we teach a computer to understand natural language? We don't. Not in a 100% reliable way. Even today, no algorithm is known that could reliably determine the grammar of a sentence. How much harder must it then be to determine the meaning of a sentence?

The solution is to single out a subset of the English language — to be used in a knowledge card's label — which we can reliably make sense of while still giving us the precision, speed, and flexibility needed to go well beyond what you can possibly hope to achieve with conventional tags.

Next, let's look at how Kards' knowledge card labels work, and how smart labeling might change the way you interact with productivity software.

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