The Nonsense of Pagination Paradigm

We still live in a pagination paradigm that seems to need numerical references, such as the indication of pages, references with numbers superimposed on those keywords, paragraph breaks, line breaks, and of course, the footers and their subsequent notes. Having known the potential of Obsidian and what this software can do in conjunction with the Markdown language, I have been wondering why we still need a section within a text, or a note, which is nothing more than another piece of text. Obsidian, and all other note-taking software, ushered us in an era of “atomic text”, which alone represents an informational micro-universe that is undeniably linked to another micro-universe. And only then is it possible to build the graph that shows the correlations in a macro view. From the use I have made of Obsidian, and as an academic researching History of Science, it is increasingly clear that we need to overcome the current paradigm of how we write, and how we write about science. We actually need to change the way we write about anything. The potential is there. The cognitive process when writing, keeping in mind the way the Obsidian works, will be much broader, and in the words of Gilles Deleuze, rhizomatic.

Do we still need pages?

Daniel Maia. Brazilian. Historian and DsC. History of Science.

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Interesting. I’ll bite. :slightly_smiling_face:

I’m trying to picture a world without pages (or footnotes, or sections which all rely on pages), and wondering what it would look like if I used my library card to take out a bunch of atomic notes, instead of a bunch of pages bound into a book. Where would the text start and stop? How would I progress through the notes? How would I place a particular atomic idea in the world of other atomic ideas? The thing about a rhizome metaphor, is that we can see the whole rhizome, the whole plant even, in one glance, and visually see which rhizome parts are close to the plant stem and which are farther away. How would you see the rhizomic structure for all those atomic notes? How would I cite such a note (ie find it again)?

By the way, do you know why we moved from long scrolls to book-bound pages? Was it a storage issue?

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I will try to answer your questions with parts of your own answer. When civilizations registered their knowledge on papyrus rolls, we did not separate knowledge into fields or areas. This (separation/categorization) was the result of the Scientific Revolution. I am not talking about books, but knowledge. We had literature books, books on medicine, but each and every book contained a myriad of interdependent knowledge. Researchers were then known as natural philosophers. They needed to know a little or a lot of everything.

Answering your question about how you could consume knowledge in the face of a paradigm that surpasses pagination, I believe that the answer lies in the knowledge storage potential itself. As Digital Indexing is a major revolution in itself, I believe that you can walk your own path in reading and learning a certain topic, where one subject will lead you to another, without necessarily being the same as another person, just by reading atomic notes, or atomic concepts, that, in themselves could contain references to other concepts, that is the backlinks. Just as Deleuze talks about rhizome, scholars of Contemporary Science, like Edgar Morin, have called attention to the need to reunite the fields of knowledge, recognizing their interdependence, since modern science itself has created such complex problems that the fields alone and individually can’t solve anymore. So, taking Obsidian itself as metaphor and what it can reveal, one can imagine that it will not matter how the concepts are organized, but with what other concepts those are related to.

A glimpse of the past, for a reflection for the future. When I was a kid, I used to play a memory game that the rule was to correlate a word with another mentioned before. So I think this process of building atomic notes works the same. But with a large corpora involved. :sweat_smile:

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Generally speaking, the digital revolution has brought us a lot of new, exciting, more efficient stuff that has displaced a lot of old stuff. That does not mean that all the old stuff is worthless. Is a conventional book worthless? I don’t think so, even if I have to admit I only read digital versions today. Is a pen and paper worthless? I don’t think so.

It seems to me that an app like Obsidian goes a good way towards what you plead for. You can collect your knowledge in a big pile without categorizing it, yet you need the note format to make all that knowledge usable.

Pagination specifically: not needed if you keep your notes to yourself. If you intend to share them, however, as e.g. a PDF, you’ll need pagination if you want to make your work usable to a user by providing a Table of Contents with page numbers.

I like this :slight_smile:

Are you familiar with Ted Nelson’s Xanadu spaces? .


I think both matter. You definitely need the latter to be able to follow ideas outside of what you’re currently reading − using both explicitly linked content and automatic backlinks. But for anything larger than a screeful of text (my totally arbitrary estimation) you probably want the former too. What an «organization» (or «structure») of the document gives you is its abstraction. When sections of a (long-ish) text are named properly, you can get a lot of value from just looking at the TOC − just like looking at something remote using just your eyes first before going straight to the binoculars gives you a better idea of the entire thing, without concentrating too much on individual details. If other words, good document organization lets you see the forest for the trees − something you can’t do with a «wall of text» without reading it in its entirety and processing it after reading.

Simply put, because not all text is equal.

A list of possible reasons why this might be handy:

  • A named reference (consider how many people use «Sermon on the Mount» instead of «Mathew 5:1−7:27» to refer to the thing − despite having references to the individual chapter and verse!)
  • «Note within a note»: you can have a smaller and relatively self-contained piece of text within a larger text, e.g. tangential stuff that can be safely skipped without losing track of what’s happening in the main text. Or the opposite of that: something important that should stand out. Arguably you can do that with formatting, but then you start diverging from the «plain text» paradigm and moving into «fonts and colors» domain of Microsoft Word et al.
  • To mark an end of one thing and beginning of another. Consider plays of Shakespeare: without separate acts and scenes they wouldn’t make any sense. Arguably you can remove this by making each scene its own «note», and linking directly to the next one, but I fail to see how this purely navigational use of linking is much better than having the entire play or act as a single document. This is generally true for all documents that should be read sequentially in a specific order − linking doesn’t bring much improvement to the table when used as a navigation tool (as opposed to semantic linking).

This is just off the top of my head − not an exhaustive list.

Re-reading your initial post again, I see now that it can be taken as an argument against pages as artifical construct orthogonal to the document structure, and not as an argument against any and all structure. In that case the argument is somewhat legitimate. However, as you surely know from the use of paper-based maps, having orthogonal reference (as in «Town hall is in the sector H2 on this city map») can be very useful, especially if there’s no other way to refer to the thing you want.

To me, this boils down to the tradeoff between document length, the medium, and granularity of the links/refecences.

Given that there’s another way to reference (and thus link) pieces of text, you might consider pages irrelevant. But I think that the question you should ask yourself is: «How granular I want my refereces to be?» Absent block references, you can only refer to the entire note (i.e. a file). To make your reference useful/relevant in this case, the note has to be small enough, otherwise the link brings in a lot more context (potentially irrelevant!) than you initially wanted. If your notes aren’t always small, you would definitely want a way to make your references more granular. This is where headings/sections and blocks/paragraphs come into play. Obsidian has block references now. However, we returned to the start of my post where I defend the need for granular document structure: being able to structure the document using sections, chapters, blocks or anything of that sort is definitely useful, and even benefitial for linking as it allows referring to specific parts of the document, regardless of the medium.

For non-electronic documents of non-trivial length though, I don’t see how pages can be made irrelevant in the absense of another way to link to sections of other documents: one page is sufficiently small to make your reference relevant enough while still keeping it precise. In my layman understanding of references as used in scientific publishing, it might be enough to just name the cited paper properly without having to provide specific pages, but such reference is very generic and works not-too-terribly only for cited works with very low number of ideas (i.e. one thesis for the entire paper, and even in that case they still provide abstracts to allow getting the gist of the paper quickly!), or in cases where the referenced idea is very general and/or well known (i.e. referring to Marx’s «Das Kapital» as a whole book, not to its particular sections). In all other cases your reference pretty much forces you to read the whole cited document, which makes your reference way too general. Thus, we need pages if we want our dead-tree documents to have precise and relevant links.

So, that’s my 0.02$.

Please don’t consider my post as an argument against backlinks or graphs or anything like that − those are wonderful and powerful new mechanisms that help us more easily do what we consider important. What I suggest is that we don’t give up on things that served us well for very long tme just because we have some new shiny thing − consider those tools as supplementary, not as competing. Take the best of each!


I didn’t know that reference. Thanks a lot for showing me this. This one I’ll put on my thesis for sure.

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I’ll need time to think about your 0.02$, that’s a lot to sink in with your answer. Thank you :slight_smile:

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@cestvrai By the way, do you know why we moved from long scrolls to book-bound pages? Was it a storage issue?

No, it was not a storage issue. It happened primarily in early Christianity when people realized that at least in some cases, the order of a text (i.e., the Bible in that case) mattered. (Imagine telling a gospel story when you shuffle around your scrolls and misplace a couple of them!)
Then of course books (codices) were the main carriers of written scholarship throughout the middle ages.

I still think books (and pages) matter. It matters whether an argument or an example is in the introduction of a book or in one of its core chapters.

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