When I started working on Mentat back in 2018 I had in mind a kind of “total information store” that I could use for all sorts of things but often about outputs either to questions or in terms of content.
This was a reflection of the blurring of my work & life and the way that information tends to disappear into other peoples silos over time. I am interested in what I am interested in, no matter the context, and I would like to know what I know or at least what I thought at some point.
Meanwhile, Roam Research has come along and hoovered up a lot of use cases. I use Roam as a habitual note-taking environment. A light-weight TODO system, calendar, and personal CRM. I use it for drafting LinkedIn posts, blogs, and newsletters. And I’m a relatively unsophisticated Roam user (for example I’ve never written a query in anger, don’t use Roam/js plugins, and still use the default theme) and yet it has certainly come to dominate my digital life.
At the same time, I can reflect that one of Roam’s great strengths: its focus on blocks of written text (with tags and backlinks) is also its Achilles heel. You can put anything in Roam but structure appears only sporadically and with effort. How can you act upon what Roam knows?
In the context of, say, writing an article it works well. But what if I wanted to see if I could answer a specific question relating things that I know. That could be a lot more tricky.
Mentat comes from the opposite perspective. It deals with structured ‘things’ (indeed the root of the Mentat mental taxonomy is something called
Thing). We can have a
Note that represents free text. This is never going to be as powerful as Roam but, at the same time, we know what is a note and what is a instead a
Person. Roam can approach this through the use of tagging. I routinely add
Tags: #Person to people I add to Roam as part of my CRM but it’s not the same thing.
As yet, Roam provided few tools to act on this and of course it relies upon my consistently tagging people — which often I forget — and applying the same schema over time (mine has changed 3 times as the advice has changed). Again there are solutions to these problems but they are always a compromise of being based upon free text. Mentat has it’s own compromises but, similarly, strengths.
Three things I see as being very important to using a future version of Mentat for work are:
Being able to structure questions with appropriate metadata that allows them to be shared and acted upon by others.
A “shared space” in which questions can be placed and taken.
The ability to create agents that can act on things in the shared space. Taking them, acting upon them, changing things locally and potentially placing things back into the shared space.
Roam is going to have to tackle the problem of people sharing their graphs. That is going to be a hard problem. Mentat will allow people to create shared spaces and exchange information without needing to create a total mapping.
It will be interesting to see if (a) I can build this, (b) if it might work as well as or better (for some problems) as what Roam will come up with.