Casey Newton: Why note-taking apps don't make us smarter

They definitely do.

I liked the essay overall. It’s a real problem that people can’t read a list of links without getting distracted. (I’ve seen it in session tracking data.) Good on the author for the humility there. However, people tend to act the same way with AI summaries. When attention and cognition are besieged, making information views more dense and interesting to compete isn’t effective defense.

But as to whether you can surprise yourself beneficially with either an automatic link or a link you made and forgot: absolutely.

1 Like

There’s a vast and important field sometimes called “cognitive science” around “thinking” and how it does and does not relate to computing.

The first thing a cognitive scientist would say is that there are lots of very different processes and combinations of processes we call “thinking” (and equally “learning” or “remembering”) and none of them are simple. The second thing they’d say is that what happens when humans express themselves in language (orally or in writing) is very interesting and very poorly understood.

Human experience, over thousands of years, is that writing things down or talking about them (expressing them in language) is very often useful. There’s no real doubt that making notes benefits us. HOW they work and how well they work is deeply personal (as is “thinking” and “learning”) and complex. Anyone being dogmatic with theories or practices around note-making (beyond “this is what I do and why I like doing it”) is more in the realms of faith than science, especially if their theories and practices are rigid and simplistic.

At best, we are all exploring what works and is most useful for us, and offering each other our insights and discoveries. Sadly, as in so many areas of life, there are always those who want to make complicated things simple: not a bad aim in itself, but also a gateway to exploitation for gain when it becomes about imposing one simple view.


I’m not going to comment on the content of the article because I think we all seem to be in agreement and anyway one could write many books on this subject.

I do however find it very irksome that the opening paragraph refers to “productivity platforms” before discussing note-taking. “Productivity” and “knowledge management” are not the same thing and it’s very careless phrasing.


This article is a poorly reinstated expression of the collector’s fallacy. It tries to combine numerous ideas without defining terminology.

What struck me about the article was the passivity of the author’s experience with note-taking. Brilliant insights are not made by just having notes. The author needs to make concerted efforts in relating notes to other notes, and in relating concepts to other concepts, before insights can be made. It is correct in that no tool will do your thinking for you. You have to extend your mind and use available data before you can make any insights.

This is a first step to conquer Collector’s Fallacy: to realize that having a text at hand does nothing to increase our knowledge. We have to work with it instead. Reading alone won’t suffice: we have to create notes, too, to create real, sustainable knowledge.

Integration and understanding rather than collecting information is the goal.

The other thing I take exception with is that taking notes doesn’t make me any dumber. There are a great many things that I forget, and I like having my notes nearby to help me remember.


To me the best use of links in Obsidian happens during my weekly review. Here I sit back and look at my daily notes for the previous week. I have links to all sorts of things in my daily notes. Conversations with people, meetings, brainstorming on projects. The links from the daily notes often has me following threads into topics I linked knowing I would come back to it for a deep dive during my weekly review.

I think the key point is you need to set aside an hour a week to actively engage with your notes. You can’t just wait for it to come out and grab you by magic. Thinking is hard and needs to be done in a deliberate way. I know that putting in a little time up front linking to notes during the week is going to pay off at the end of the week.

Here is one specific example. For all the important people in my life I have a note. Any conversation or meeting with that person will get a link back to the person note. During my weekly review, if I see a link to a person, I will open that person’s note and look at all the links. Say the conversation this week was on Project X. Opening the person’s note shows me we had 5 other meetings about project X over the last 2 months and here is what we talked about.


There will come a day when my hammer metaphor is bent so far that it breaks, but today is not that day.

Does a hammer make someone stronger?


But you can do a lot more with a hammer than you can do with your fists.

Same goes for note-taking apps.1

These are simply tools that offer us different ways to work with the material of our thoughts — our notes! — to shape them into whatever we want to.

But, as many have described already, it’s how we use the tool that matters.

What won’t make us smarter is to do what Casey describes in the article:

I waited for the insights to come.

And waited. And waited.

Edit: I published a lightly edited version of this on my blog in an effort to catalogue every time I invoke a hammer in discussions about PKM.

[1]: And same goes for our note-taking practices, which is often overlooked in articles like the OP but, as many have already discussed here, is the thing that actually matters. Latour and co. had it right. It’s not the person, and it’s not the tool, it’s person + tool. Or: we shape our tools, and they shape us.


I agree that it can happen. I haven’t read the article, so this comment is just related to the idea of surprise generating from linking —

I think the problem is how it’s currently presented. This isn’t a new idea at all. At its base form is the notion that connections between two or more seemingly unrelated things may change how you’re currently thinking. That’s it. Sometimes it bears fruit. Sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter if the connecting string between concepts is really there or not — the important part is that it can subtly push you out of unconscious rigidity in your thinking.

And this has been around before personal computers. There’s the old parlor game of Exquisite Corpse and William S Burroughs cut-up technique (which a lot of artists use versions of, including David Bowie or Brian Eno’s oblique strategies), hyper-text fiction theory (again, predating the personal computer revolution, like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch novel).

Word clouds and unconscious writing are also versions of this. Hypertext theory from the beginning has elements of this. You can find examples of hypertext fiction working under these theories written in HyperCard back when that was a unique program (sadly I don’t remember the names, but I had a few of them on my Mac Classic II - if that was the black and white version).

The problem is the “success” or “achievement” is more subtle than makes for a good YouTube presentation, online-course, or eBook. So it’s oversold in what it is and what it can do. And then is dismissed by folks because it’s hype. But the core concept is there, it’s just not as groundbreaking or huge — or obvious — as it’s made out to be.


I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, along with your earlier comment, “This isn’t a new idea at all.” But the hype pitches it as something it isn’t.

Writers have cited examples where, in reviewing notes in a linking notes app, they’ve been “surprised” by things they recorded earlier that they’d forgotten or that links an app suggests between concepts get them thinking about the concepts.

The same thing happens all the time with non-linking apps. I’m constantly surprised by something I’d forgotten I’d read when I review Readwise highlights every morning. Likewise, when I go into a topic folder in which I’ve been collecting material, I’ve forgotten much of what’s in it. I could do the same, reviewing a stack of 3x5 notecards. Or one Readwise highlight reminds me of something else and prompts thinking, or I read two Readwise highlights and see a new way they are related.

In all these examples, the app is just recalling the material I’ve saved but not doing any thinking for me. I still have to look at the notes, decide if they are related somehow, and then think about what that means.


Right, it’s being pitched as an old idea made easier with new tools. Just like Readwise and MindNode. The core concept being promoted (hyped?) in the PKM community is that your research and ideas are better when you view your materials with more context.

One of the popular ways to be pulled in a direction among Obsidian users is the random note feature. Very simple, and not too different than flipping to a few random pages in a notebook or doing the Horner Bible reading plan. But a lot more people are doing it now because a tool makes it easy.

Likewise LLM summaries of your own data that Casey Newton speculates could help him would just be an advance or writing and consolidating your own or your assistants’ glosses. I criticized it as a solution but not because it’s an attempt to innovate on a research method.

As for why the hype: I think it’s a mix of Youtubers being Youtubers (bad) and some of these tools helping certain hobbies and careers move downmarket from academia, niche professional use and nerd circles (good.)

1 Like

Wonderful revelation. I totally agree with setting time aside to just evaluate, ruminate, collate, update and remake your notes as you work to make them a helpmeet not a millstone.


Wonderful examples, thanks for bringing some old passions to the front again. :grinning:

Some of this discussion is core to the concept and theory of “hypertext”, from the late 1970s onward.

There’s no doubt that enabling text (or images) to link to other text (or images or files) is incredibly powerful and is something most people on earth use every day on literally billions of pieces of text. The more difficult question is how to present the reader with a representation of links that is effective. Tim Berners-Lee’s original idea of underlining and changing the colour of text to show it links to something else was brilliantly simple and effective, which is why it has stuck despite the efforts of many web and software designers to subvert it. It’s no surprise that it has begun to appear in notes - and maybe a surprise that it took so long. The extension of that idea to “backlinks” (that links work both ways) is also almost inevitable, but no-one has yet come up with the simple equivalent of a hyperlink for that, so there are multiple methods of showing what links to a text instead of one accepted way of showing onward links.

What is not at all clear, despite many claims, is whether showing those links as a separate graph or other representation is helpful to many people. Graphs of the internet were popular maybe 20 years ago (showing web pages as nodes and the connections between them) and it is still possible to access them and create them (e.g. DevonAgent) but they never generated the hype that similar approaches have done in, say, Obsidian.

As I understand it, the benefit of linking thoughts/notes (whether in a Zettelkasten or in hypertext) is for use as a tool to organise and use them by following “threads” through in order to deepen understanding or broaden it. That can only happen by exploring the thoughts and ideas within the notes and how they relate, reorganising material into new syntheses and reaching maybe new conclusions. I don’t think that is going to happen by seeing a graph of links or list of backlinks on its own, unless your understanding of the field is so shallow that you haven’t made any connections of your own.

1 Like

For me it was a world of difference when I tried the „Plex“ feature of TheBrain where it‘s easy to link different „thoughts“ graphically in multiple parent, child and jump relationships. It‘s a conscious but effortless approach to link related things rather then burying them in the text. A strong reminder that having the same „feature“ (linking between entities) can be realized so differently to have a very different quality.

I’ve tried to use the graph in Obsidian and either it is too dense or a local graph doesn’t give enough links to be useful. I plan to try filters in the graph to see if that helps.

1 Like

Casey Newton had a brief follow-up yesterday:

A funny and predictable outcome of me writing about why we should stop trusting souped-up note-taking apps to make us smarter last week is that dozens of you wrote to me saying: ok, but have you tried this souped-up note-taking app to make you smarter? And then linked to something I had never heard of that looked to be at most 1 percent different from every other product on the market. Several of you told me that, driven to madness by the failure of other note-taking apps, you had actually built your own souped-up note-taking app and invited me to try it. You are all degenerates and I hope you get the help you need.

An even funnier and more predictable outcome of this response is that I actually downloaded one of these suggested apps and immediately fell in love with it. It’s called Capacities, it’s built by a small team in Europe, and it’s at most 1 percent different from every other product on the market. I’m completely in love, and about a year from now I’ll tell you in a separate post why I abandoned Capacities for something that looks almost identical.

That’s the entirety of Newton’s comments on note-taking in that particular edition of his newsletter. It’s just two paragraphs of a much longer newsletter so I figure it’s ok to post here.

One of the reasons I posted the original article here is that I have enormous respect for Casey Newton as a journalist. He’s a great journalist, and to be a great journalist, you need to be a great note-taker. Note-taking is an essential skill of journalism; you can’t do the job without taking good notes.


Great answers. Also funny that he fell for the next app. In fact, it looks great although I am not interested.


Haha, I absolutely love his response, especially “You are all degenerates and I hope you get the help you need.” :joy::joy:

I’m feeling superior today because despite hearing the siren call of Capacities and eyeing up their website at least once a week, I have resisted :joy: Because I don’t actually need a new app.

It was @sridhar who tempted me most recently with Capacities (in the thread on organising tasks and emails), and although I resisted setting up Capacities, I ended up downloading LunaTask. Ridiculous. (Interesting task manager though.)

Casey’s right, I am a degenerate.


Vera Brittain, the British author of books such as Testament of Youth that chronicled her experience in World War One, was friends with Winifred Holty, author of South Riding. Brittain reported Holtby had said that use of a commonplace book (what would today be considered a journal or a note-taking app) for recording quotes caused her to forget completely the events so recorded.

Curious. I find that writing things (not typing) helps me remember. This was especially true in college, where my process was to write the notes twice. Once at lecture or upon first read of the material. And then a second time in my “permanent” notebook. I suspect this repetition helped with recall.

Even today I use a pad (no “i”!) and pencil in work meetings to jot down things, only some of which get further processed as entries in task managers or note apps. Simple and effective and works for me.


There’s a cognitive mechanism at play here that might explain the difference.

Rehearsal and questioning of concepts tends to cement and chunk those concepts in our minds (hence the effectiveness of spaced repetition techniques).

So, rote recording of events — without any rich reflection on those events or questioning of details — would probably have a limited effect on remembrance, especially if they’re never revisited ever again. If they are revisited but, again, the concepts that’re recorded aren’t questions, it’s still likely to have little benefit on memory.

It’s working with concepts, turning them around in our minds, that reinforces memory.