🖋Spiral Dynamics and Zettelkasten re-coloring

Spiral Dynamics is a theory that describes the structure of people’s Value Systems, or simply—worldviews. Worldviews are important because they define how we see and how we relate to things, what we consider important and what we don’t.

Spiral Dynamics beautifully explains why essentially the same thing can be marketed to different groups using almost opposite arguments—they just target different Value Systems. Yoga and meditation are probably the most prominent examples of such re-coloring.

To some people, yoga is sold as a good stretching or exercise—they do yoga to feel a burst of energy or to stay in shape. Yet for other people, the yoga is a way to connect with oneself.

To some people, meditation is sold as an exercise to slow self down and control emotions—they meditate to stay calm, to see the picture clearly, and to make rational decisions. Yet for others, meditation is a way to discover their emotions, to discover oneself, or went off into spirituality.

Zettelkasten is a manifestation of Yellow

Niklas Luhmann has been working in sociocybernetics, social and systems theories—all are considered “Yellow.” He was also trying to build a Grand Theory of sociology, a universal theoretical framework that would explain all aspects of social life. (Building complex and all-encompassing theories is a signature of Yellow thinking.)

It’s worth noting that Luhmann wasn’t developing the theory to become rich or famous—the theory was the end goal in itself. Writing 70+ books and 300+ articles is arguably a by-product.

In the same way, writing books faster wasn’t Luhmann’s goal when using Zettelkasten—Zettelkasten was all about developing the theory, discovering new ideas and connections.

He also referred to his Zettelkasten as a system, a partner in communication, an independent mind that gets a life of its own. (Which arguably shows Yellow’s organismic and systemic view of the life.)

Zettelkasten as seen by Orange

Zettelkasten is a good method and you shouldn’t limit it to one stage. As more people learned about Zettelkasten, it quickly got picked up by Orange. But Orange interprets Zettelkasten quite differently.

In a nutshell, Orange is about success, becoming faster, better, smarter. So it sees Zettelkasten through this lens.

Orange is lured by Luhmann’s mythical productivity, tens of books written, and hundreds of papers published. The promises of scaling knowledge management, remembering more, quick information lookup, becoming smarter or better at work are quite appealing to Orange.

Orange’s worldview is mechanistic, so they tend to see Zettelkasten as a mechanism, a technique, a recipe with specific steps and rules. They tends to over-focus on “How to take notes better?,” constantly tweaking and adapting their system.

At one end, they may think that Luhmann’s implementation is a true one. So they try to reverse-engineer his procedure in detail, hoping that this will unblock the secret and remove the friction. The irony is, his method is not procedure, and you cannot grasp it without understanding Luhmann’s thinking.

At another end, because Orange sees Zettelkasten as a productivity tool, Orange tries to merge it with the rest of their productivity system. I believe that the desire to merge Zettelkasten with GTD, note-taking with to-do lists is a clear indicator of Orange.

Orange is good at adapting existing tools, building stand-alone note-taking apps, or creating plugins that help capturing notes faster. Orange is also good at experimenting, trying different procedures, recipes and rules. This all helps advancing note-taking ecosystem.

Green’s take on knowledge management

Superficially, Green is about connecting with people, sacrificing self for the greater good, and being part of a group. It’s also about cooperation and consensus.

I don’t think someone would pick up Zettelkasten from Green’s perspective because Zettelkasten is more of a personal knowledge management tool—Green is not usually interested in that.

But Green do has a stance on knowledge management—just a more cooperative one.

Green might think that all knowledge must be public, and no knowledge may be kept private for selfish purposes.

Wikipedia is very Green. As the idea of wiki itself. (Though again, Confluence is an example of Orange re-coloring of wiki, as well as numerous personal wikis.)

Roam Research looks like ORANGE/green—mostly Orange with notes of (Orange-colored) Green around collaborative problem-solving:

8. Collaborative problem-solving

While the individual use case for Roam stands on its own merits, [emphasis mine] the ultimate goal is to create a platform for collaborative research and learning. Current protocols are bound by the assumption of necessary consensus. The flexibility of a curated knowledge graph allows for a more pluralistic approach, with the ability to weight conflicting opinions and separate signal from noise without resorting to either autocracy or democracy.

Roam White Paper

Why that’s a good thing

This might look like a grumpy post about people not understanding the true nature of Zettelkasten or misinterpreting it. But it isn’t.

Yoga is not originally about physical fitness, but it’s still a good tool for that. People used to meditate to get enlightenment, but it helps with stress, too. Maybe, Luhmann wasn’t into productivity cult, but if Zettelkasten helps you—why not?

This re-coloring and adapting Zettelkasten for different needs makes it more popular. That brings in more toolmakers and experimenters, who build better tools, find interesting techniques, and make life easier for everyone. It’s a win-win.


This post is somewhat of a hypothesis, and I am not exactly sure of it—it might all be a big stretch. Have some thoughts? Ping me at telegram: @rasendubi, or shoot me a mail: rasen.dubi@gmail.com.

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