The Missing Element

Breathing life back into our information management systems.

Cameron Flint
3 min readApr 27, 2022
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

In Knowledge, Activity, and Content, I presented a way of looking broadly at the different kinds of information we keep or a way to think about the various interrelated systems we use to manage our digital lives. I still like this model, but I now think it’s missing one key ingredient.

As I looked across the digital landscape of the various one’s and zero’s that I valued in some way, I found a handful of artifacts that didn’t fit into any of the three categories. And when I took the time to survey that rebellious collection of misfits, I began to realize that I’d omitted something important.

The ideas and facts swirling around the “knowledge” lab; the tasks, projects, and goals marshaled in orderly lines within the “activity” department; the dusty artifacts lining the shelves of the “content” room. All of these vignettes within my PIM system had one thing in common: they felt cold and lifeless.

Before you call me a sentimentalist — a label that I wouldn’t make much of an effort to hide from, but anyway — let me explain.

Imagine scrolling through your Apple Photos library and coming across a photograph taken long ago of you and a loved one, perhaps a family member or close friend from your younger days. Seeing the picture, you recall the moment in vivid detail and it fills you with feeling and memory of that day or of that season of life. Thumbing down a page in your camera roll, you encounter a screenshot of an internet meme or comic that you’d long forgotten having saved, and it makes you laugh out loud for a second time.

Fragments and photos like that are valuable, right? They’re probably worth more than that random fleeting idea you had in the car last week but which felt important enough at the time to immediately dictate into your notes app. Maybe you handle your digital photos and collectibles with the same carefully considered reverence that you apply to your “second brain,” but maybe like me, you don’t. And in my own moment of reflection, I wondered why I didn’t.

An experiment with ways to intentionally file items that might bring a spark of humor to my future self.

The missing piece of the Knowledge, Activity, and Content puzzle is Humanity. By humanity, I mean all of the things that we gather around us over a lifetime that inspires us, motivates us, makes us remember and appreciate, sparks our imagination and sense of wonder every time we serendipitously rediscover those bits and bobs of bottled-up joy.

So maybe like me you’d like to take an empathic second look at your PIM system / second brain / PKM / whatever you call it, and ask yourself if it’s really designed for a human — you! — or for a robot. Don’t forget the humanity part of the equation like I did.

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Cameron Flint

Diving deep on topics related to note-taking, personal information management, and software engineering, with occasional diversions to less nerdy things.