If you’ve been reading my work for any period of time, you’ll know that I write and celebrate many things about ChatGPT. I used it to help me create an entire video game from scratch (yes, my article on that is still forthcoming). I’ve used it to plan several Tabletop RPG games I run during the week (at least give me some broad-strokes guidance). But GPT is so much more than just an “extra brain” for when you need it. I would propose that ChatGPT isn’t even a brain (or intelligence, for that matter) at all. It’s just an exciting method of arranging ideas that allow us humans to see things in a different light. Let me introduce you to the concept of a Zettelkasten.
A What Now?
The term “zettelkasten” refers to a method of note-taking and memory management. It’s named after a card box or index box (direct translation from German) because that’s the fundamental nature of the process. When I first heard about it, I referenced it to one of my favorite fiction series, Harry Potter. The zettelkasten is basically a real-world version of the Pensieve. If you’re not a Potterhead, let me explain. In the book, there is a fictional device called a Pensieve that someone can use to “extract” thoughts from their head in case it’s becoming too crowded in there. When they want to recover the memory, they just need to stare into the Pensieve, and the memory appears. A zettelkasten is like this but in the real world.
How Does the Zettelkasten Method Work?
Remember how I said the word refers to an index box or a card box? Younger readers (Oh God, I’m old now) might not know what an index card box is. In the early days of Library Science, professionals needed a way to tell what books were in the library, and who were those books authors, and whether they were lent out or not. Today, obviously, we use a database system for that. But in the old days, like when I was in high school, they would use card indexes to tell them all this information. If you’ve ever seen the rectangular index cards, the records would be written on those and stored in a specially designed shelf. The shelf would have drawers labeled with letters of the alphabet. If you knew the title, you just needed to pull the right drawer, go through the alphabetized list, and find the book.
Zettelkasten is a memory management process that’s similar to this. It works by asking you to catalog your thoughts and add tags to it. Then, you link ideas and thoughts with a common thread. You can think of this as one of those pinboards you see on detective shows. The colored line going from one thing to another represents your thought process and how those things interact. For this to work, you’ll need to take a LOT of notes, figure out the tags for all of these, and then assemble them to make a complete collection of your thoughts and linkages. There is software out there that will help you put together a zettelkasten if you wish (and some of those options are free as well). While zettelkastens themselves are super interesting (and something I’ll write about in more detail at a later date), I wanted to explore an idea that’s been bouncing around my head for a long time.
ChatGPT As a Zettelkasten
As a Large Language Model (LLM), ChatGPT can iterate on what people ask it and connect dots that others can’t see (or don’t want to see, as the case may be). It collects data, compiles it, catalogs it, and links it together. Thus, when I ask GPT for a solution for a 3D movement system in the Unity Game Engine, it can give me one of several ways to do this. While it can sometimes be frustrating to get GPT to stick to one method (a problem I have had in my prompt engineering for a while) it made me realize that GPT is much more than an AI model. It’s probably the closest thing we have to zettelkasten for the human race.
Stay with me; I’ll explain. GPT has a LOT of information stored inside its memory banks. Some of the stuff it spits out to you is unusable (and it’s up to you to determine what’s real and what’s not). However, it has quite a large volume of data it’s collected from both its ordered data set and the people that talk to it. For the LLM to offer insights and respond to users, it needs to link those ideas together. Doesn’t that sound like exactly the reason we create zettelkasten?
How to Use GPT as a Zettelkasten
If you Google GPT and Zettelkasten, you’ll get a few places teaching you how to use GPT to help you set up one of these card-index memory-management things. It’s handy (especially if you’re a fiction writer, a game designer, and any number of other creative titles). However, I contend that you don’t NEED to set up a zettelkasten. GPT is ALREADY a zettelkasten. All you need to do is learn how to use it.
I’m currently working on a course that will teach you how to do prompt engineering in a wide range of creative subjects, from world creation and development for game developers and fiction writers to campaign planning for dungeon masters and more using GPT. If you want to keep up with this (and my emerging tech writing and coverage), please consider subscribing to my Medium. I would really appreciate it. I also enjoy responding to comments and questions, so be bold and ask them if you think something I said sounds weird. I’d gladly explain my thoughts more clearly to you in the comments.
Until next time, remember that even though GPT seems like it’s a diary holding the malevolent spirit of an undead wizard, it’s actually a zettelkasten holding the reanimated memories of several hundred long-dead wizards.