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The Tabular Self

I saw the best minds of my generation being uploaded onto “second-brain” apps.

Illustration: Pablo Delcan
Illustration: Pablo Delcan

The 20th century brought with it a deluge of paper. As American businesses expanded in both number and scale in the wake of the Civil War, so did their printed material; there were graphs, memos, charts, forms, and more correspondence than ever. This “paperization” eventually spilled into the home, where a rise in personal documentation meant that houses were filling up with bills, letters, tax forms, receipts, birth certificates, recipes clipped from magazines. As these archives ballooned, a new technology rose in popularity: the filing cabinet, whose history the scholar Craig Robertson documents in The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. One 1918 advertisement described the filing cabinet as “oracle-like” with a “great gigantic memory”: “It is only a bit o’ steel, yet no brain was ever made / That could wholly supersede it with the busy business man.” The filing cabinet, then, was better than a human brain — it could hold and organize the entire contents of one’s professional and domestic life, broken down into discrete bits of information and made retrievable at will.

Not everyone was happy with the invention. The writer Montrose J. Moses was wary of how filing cabinets externalized personal memory: What would be the consequences of trying to turn every aspect of your life into “information” to be hoarded for later? “You can’t expect yourself to say, when you give your wife the first kiss, ‘File that, my dear, for future reference,’ ” he wrote in 1930.

Nearly a century later, Moses’s anxiety has become our reality. We are constantly turning our lives into data, much of it nonphysical: photographs and screenshots and stray notes, reams of text messages and bookmarked tabs and other digital detritus. I could tell you with a glance at my iPhone exactly where I was on October 24, 2015, or how many hours of sleep I got last night. This compendium of self-knowledge seems only to expand, prompting our devices to expand along with it: The first iPhone’s maximum storage space was 16 gigabytes, while the newest release offers a terabyte. By now, we may even rely on our devices’ memories so completely that we’ve lost our ability to recall things without them. But the contents of our digital memories have themselves grown unwieldy, fractured across multiple devices and accounts, impossible to process.

Amid this flood of data, a new category of app has emerged, one that promises to collect all the digital material we generate into one single, seamless interface. They are sometimes referred to as “knowledge-management systems” or “personal-knowledge bases,” though many users refer to them as simply “second brains.” The best known is Notion, which was released in 2016 and has grown from 1 million to more than 20 million users in the past two years (and was recently valued at $10 billion). There is Roam Research, founded in 2017, and Obsidian, founded in 2020, and Mem, which is in public beta. Like the filing cabinet for the pre-digital era, these apps are designed not only to store everything that our brains can’t hold — grocery lists, passwords, meditation schedules, work tasks — but also to make us better at retrieving the information in them. Instead of tabs and folders, they allow us to sort our archives into customizable, easy-to-navigate tables — and, in the case of Mem and Obsidian, can even show us how one piece of information (say, your to-do list) is related to another (notes from a recent meeting). “Our thinking is, If a thought can’t be retrieved, then it’s not a useful thought,” said Kevin Moody, the 26-year-old former Google employee who co-founded Mem, which recently raised $5.6 million in venture capital. Srinivas Rao, an author and podcast host who uses Mem, once described the app as “the closest thing I’ve seen to being able to upload your brain to the internet.”

These platforms have fostered thriving subcultures of devotees. Enthusiastic Roam users call themselves the Roamcult, and the Obsidian Discord server has nearly 50,000 members. On massive Facebook groups, fans who identify as “Notioneers” trade templates they’ve built on the platform: customized tables like “Plants Manager” or “Pokémon Collection Tracker” that others can download. There are certified Notion consultants who work to help businesses and people organize their lives using the app. There are Notion influencers who make instructional videos. On her YouTube channel, lifestyle influencer Michelle Barnes, who works with Notion, shows how she has organized her Notion into an enormous “Life Dash” that includes her master to-do list. That to-do list is further broken down into categories, including a list of things she wants to purchase accompanied by a “ Life Impact” column, in which she assigns a number to how much the item will improve her life. (“Buy blackout curtains for bedroom” gets an eight, while “Buy silver scissors” gets only a one.) These apps can often encourage a radical level of self-documentation, especially as people migrate the most prosaic details of their lives onto them. (“I joke that if anybody tells me anything, I’m not going to retain that information unless I get it into Notion immediately,” Notion consultant and user William Nutt told me.) On her Notion, the TikTok user @lilianisobel has created “a database of every book I’ve ever read or want to read” — among them King Lear, Pure Mathematics Year 1, 12 Rules for Life, and the Holy Bible. There are around 30 columns on this list and a five-star rating system.

Some people have even applied this tabular logic to something as mercurial as attraction. A few years ago, Annie, a 27-year-old in New York City, began taking notes on her dating life. She started out using the Evernote app but later migrated her record-keeping to Notion; the database (which she calls her “Notion Love Tracker”) now sits next to tabs dedicated to travel itineraries, her favorite doctors, her apartment-cleaning routine, and articles to read. After each date, Annie logs in Notion her likes and dislikes about the person, how she felt after the encounter, and the answers to the questions she always asks, such as “What is your role in the friend group?” For Annie, the Notion Love Tracker functions almost as an alternate memory — which, once or twice, helped her clarify amorphous gut feelings she was experiencing. Once, after a first date, “I remember thinking, This guy is so much fun, but he seems really immature,” Annie says. Then, during the third date with him, she was enjoying herself but began to feel a bit uneasy, like “something was eating at me that I couldn’t put my finger on,” she said. She went home and consulted her Notion Love Tracker; there, in her neatly organized tables, she found that she had noticed his immaturity from the very beginning. She stopped seeing him.

Watching Notion evangelists describe their systems, I was reminded a bit of those devoted to Marie Kondo’s methods of tidying up. But rather than emphasizing removal as an antidote to chaos, the answer lies in the act of continued accumulation: every book you’ve ever read, every glass of water you drank for months, every inchoate hunch or feeling. I wondered, Do we really need all of that information? Rao thinks we do; you never know when something will turn out to be valuable, so capturing anything you can is a boon. It’s tantalizing to consider: the idea that the answers to all of our questions are searchable in our own history and experiences, so long as we’re able to save everything (and arrange it in an orderly manner). Some of these second-brain apps, like Mem, are even employing artificial-intelligence tools that might resurface information we stowed and then forgot about (for example, using time and location data to remind you what you ordered at a restaurant when you return a year later). Mem sees itself as a search company — one that will allow you to trawl through a visualized version of your own brain.

In early October, Annie began to feel overwhelmed by dating. So she turned to her Notion love tracker. After analyzing her entries, she realized she had recently gone on four dates with different people in quick succession. She also learned that she was losing track of time on first dates and ending the night feeling drained. Since then, she has determined that even if they’re going well, first dates should be capped around one and a half hours. The sprawl of her life had been broken into neat pieces of data: interconnected, searchable, easy to see and act upon. “It’s like building your own Wikipedia files,” Annie said.

The Rise of the Tabulated Self