April 22, 2022

Madeline Ashby on watching the fringes, finding common threads, sensing and sensemaking, and using murder walls (Ep18)

“There will never not be a demand for people who know how to communicate. It’s about not just finding the information, but finding out how to share it effectively.”

– Madeline Ashby

Tim O'Reilly

About Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby is a highly successful science fiction writer and an in-demand freelance consulting futurist specializing in scenario development and science fiction prototypes. Her novels include vN: The First Machine Dynasty and Company Town, which I recently very much enjoyed reading. Her work has appeared in BoingBoing, Slate, MIT Technology Review, WIRED, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

Website: Madeline Ashby

LinkedIn: Madeline Ashby

Twitter: Madeline Ashby

What you will learn

  • Why you should see what’s happening on the fringes (01:41)
  • How to fit horizon scanning into your work (05:21)
  • What is the process of taking ideas to form a vision of what might come to pass (08:20)
  • What is the murder wall style of sharing information  (09:37)
  • Why representing information to yourself should be primarily useful to you (12:49)
  • Why finding connections in information is a skill to be trained and nurtured (16:59)
  • Why there will always be a demand for people who know how to communicate (17:59)
  • How this sensemaking can be applied successfully to fiction writing (19:12)
  • Take notes because we cannot rely on our memory (25:30)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Madeline, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Madeline Ashby: Thank you for having me.

Ross: You’re not only a futurist and able to make sense of what’s going on but you also envisage very clearly what’s happening in the future. I would just love to get some sense of how it is you see what’s going on in the world and make sense of it. Where do you start? What are your daily practices?

Madeline: There’s far too much doomscrolling, for one. There’s a lot of media consumption from other countries. I work really hard to watch stuff from other places, hear things in other languages, see what’s funny somewhere else, and see what people are consuming elsewhere. One of the things that I always say, especially to students is that one of the good things to do is to see what’s happening at the fringes. Whatever struggle is happening at the fringes will often commonly make its way to the mainstream eventually, and the speed at which that happens has gotten a lot faster. That rate of change has gotten a lot faster, mostly thanks to mass communication technology, that you can know, you can observe what is happening to a very niche group very far away from your own world, and see immediately how it might apply to you or how it might mirror conditions on the ground where you are. That speed has changed, being able to observe that rate of change is a little bit different now.

Ross: How do you determine what is the fringe, or from the entire fringe what it is that’s worth paying attention to?

Madeline: I always consider you’re a fringe if people are trying to determine or legislate your existence. If you are the subject of law, if you are the subject of having your identity reframed by law, that’s a really good indicator.

Ross: The literal societal fringe.

Madeline: Yes, then that’s a really good indicator, then that’s a societal fringe issue. We could say that that’s true of a financial fringe or an economic fringe as well. Because of the discourse around what is considered poverty and what is considered wealth, remember that rash of trends pieces about like, are these people middle class or aren’t they? Those things are also determined, and they are also the subject of argument and the subject of legislation. You can move people to and from that fringe in the space of a word. I always see who is the subject of that maneuvering.

Ross: So is part of it identifying explicitly these are the fringes that I will look at?

Madeline: There are certainly the fringes that I personally am interested in, project by project that’ll change; project by project, I look at different crowds, different dynamics, and different demographics. I look for commonalities between a bunch of different groups some of the time. I’m working on something right now, where there are people being represented from a bunch of different groups, but they have certain common experiences, that the storytelling exercise that I’m involved in, can speak to, or hopefully that it can speak to it. That’s one of the goals of the project. It’s not that I’m focused so much on these tiny little micro-niches, I am concerned with how they are similar or different from each other but I also try to look for common threads of humanity too.

Ross: You are the author of many science fiction books and also co-author of the book “How to Future” by Scott Smith, which looks at futurist methodologies. One of the methodologies is “horizon scanning”. How does horizon scanning fit into your daily practice? Is this something you would engage with in client project? What does that look like in terms of the actual scanning?

Madeline: There’s daily scanning, I like to be informed, I like to read news, I like to know what’s going on, I like to know what people far cooler than me are doing, I like to know what people different from me are doing. I am an only child and an only child to my core so I have always brought the outside in for myself; that’s a way that I was pre-adapted to the work, I guess. It’s a way that I was habituated to the work. I’m always on the lookout, and I’m always aware of things. When I’m working with a client then there’s a research process and digging into a specific language, or into specific issues, or into specific demographics or something like that, to really dig into what it is that they are interested in, and also looking at how trends happening elsewhere might influence what it is that they’re doing at the time, for example, when will this wave make it over here, like looking at weather patterns or something like that.
There’s a research-based, there’s a project-based research phase that happens at the beginning of most projects. Daily, there’s too much practice actually. My problem is that I get too wrapped up in continuing to look. What I wish I did more of was take better notes of what it is that I do see, and if anyone is looking for ways to learn from my experience, what I would say is that you should find a space, whether it’s a spreadsheet, a daily journal, a note-taking app, Miro board, Jamboard, or whatever it is, even just a giant murder wall in your office, a way to document and categorize the signals that you’re seeing. Because what I find happens, and one of the things that I would like to be better at, what I find happens is that it’s really easy to continue considering these signals as individual rather than sorting them into trends if you don’t have a place to put them. We talk a lot in the book about how do you set boundaries around your time? How do you set a boundary around this? How do you stop? And that’s one of the ways that you do stop, that’s one of the ways to pull yourself away is to put it somewhere even if it’s something as simple as a list of bookmarks, or something.

Ross: This goes to two of the key phrases that in that book are sensing and sensemaking. It’s obviously to conceive of the future or how that might come to pass, it’s far more than just looking at information, it’s making sense of that. What is that process of taking all of those ideas to make sense of them to form some vision of how things could come to pass?

Madeline: Everybody does it a little bit differently because what you’re really asking is, how do humans interpret information? How do humans gather and interpret information? And that is something that philosophers, neurologists, and educators have been working for thousands of years, literally, to determine, like, how do we gather information, and how do we sort it, and how do we make sense of it? On the one hand, we’re talking about a comparatively new discipline within future’s or comparatively over the past 100 years’ language but on the other hand, we’re talking about something that has bedeviled humanity for a very long time. I like to remind people of that, that you are doing this, you are doing it all the time, what you’re now doing is labeling that practice. I do think that how we interpret information, how we take on cognitive load, how we take on information like that is highly individual; different teams will have different mechanisms for doing it so that you can share that information in an effective way. Some people are responsive to the big list, and other people want a big murder wall; I’m a big murder wall person.

Ross: Describe that.

Madeline: I am the kind of person who will in fact, either in my own mind, or visually, I will like to sort things. I’ll like to sort signals that fit together, I like color-coding, I like finding a way to sort that information in a way that I can share with other people. Because if you can share it with other people, then you’re already beginning that sense-making process. You’re categorizing things as ingredients. Like for me, those just become ingredients for whatever the final project outcome is going to be. You can think about it almost sonically like, okay, which instruments are we playing here? And in what key? And how do we orchestrate those together? What is the total sound that is being produced? I tend to think of it as a way to listen carefully, or a way to sort information such that you can share with other people, or whether it’s your team or client or somebody else, the information that you think is the most salient to the question that is being posed.

Ross: Is this using Post-it notes on the wall?

Madeline: It’s much tougher to do that now. But whether it’s using Post-it notes on the wall, or doing that digitally, or doing just a spreadsheet or something like that, or just running an ongoing conversation on certain topics, whether that’s on a server, or Slack channels, or what have you. These are ongoing conversations, in a lot of ways. When you are noticing something in a specific field, you’ll keep your eye out for it for a long time. It’s useful to flag that and say, oh, okay, this is part of the ongoing trend here, and set it in a place where you can look at the totality of the story. You’re also charting a story. I’m a narrative-based thinker. Before I did futurist work, I was trained as a historian. That’s actually something that Scott and I have in common is that we were trained to just think historically, and think in context. When I think about scanning, sorting, and sensemaking, I tend to think of it in that way, I think of it almost more as a historian than any other discipline. It’s just that being trained that way informs how I think of things now, because all of this, all of these signals, all of these trends, all of these drivers came out of a context. They came from somewhere; they didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s finding out what that context is, that to me is really important.

Ross: There’s a context, and there’s a chronology. Is there some way that you represent that to yourself mentally or using other visual tools?

Madeline: I’m terrible at drawing. I have a design degree and can’t draw a straight line. I’m bad at representing those things visually. I will tend to think of them in my own head, I will tend to color-code them or I will think of them in terms of gradations, or gradients of color, I’ll tend to think of them in different kinds of light, I will attach different images to them mentally in terms of whether or not they can be represented in a certain way. That’s no different to assigning them a mood board in your head or giving yourself a visual collage, to talk about the trend. That’s the challenge that you have any time you depict these things in a slide deck, for example, so it’s not too different from that. But it is a challenge. How do you assign something in your head do, how do you assign something and your pattern of thinking is, again, a really interesting issue to explore within the field. How do we think of these things, how do we categorize this, I feel as though it would make a really great Master’s project for somebody, is to ask all the futurists how they do this.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. But it’s also saying how you do it and presumably they do it somewhat usefully, somewhat well, because that’s their profession.

Madeline: Yes, I feel as though it’s probably different in terms of whether you’re doing this by yourself, or whether you’re doing this with a team, whether or not you’re with that team in person, whether or not you are sharing a shared document, there are certain limitations of software and limitations of the interface. The technology doesn’t yet exist for me to draw, for me to pull the red thread in someone else’s mind, for me to show how I think that two things are connected. That’s actually one of the more interesting challenges within the discipline itself, is when you’re sorting through signals, and you pull something across, and you say, Oh, this is related to that, you’ll know right away if something is clicking, if a project is clicking, or if you have chemistry with the people that you’re working with, on whether or not they can see it, whether or not they also see it.
You’ve probably had that moment I know, I’ve had that moment. You know that you’re not communicating clearly when someone has to ask you. It’s not like it’s their fault, or whatever, it’s if I’m not communicating clearly, they won’t necessarily see that. If they aren’t used to the connections that can be made here or the way that I draw them, then they might not see how two wildly disparate things are connected. In pedagogy, we call that associative framing. It’s a thing that I’ve noticed is a real challenge for some people, is, can we use this frame to think of something else? Are these two wildly different stories similar? And how? And do they share a commonality? And what does that commonality say about the world? Or about external pressures? As you’re talking about how do we make sense of this, learning how to frame things in a way that, again, emphasizes their commonality or sees a possible commonality is really important.

Ross: Is that something which comes more or less naturally to people, or something that we can nurture?

Madeline: I think it is something to be nurtured. I think it can come more naturally but it depends on the discipline. I think it’s a thing that the humanities frankly does better than other disciplines. I think that it’s a thing that I was trained to do, as a historian, as a novelist, as a person who was broadly read; looking for those commonalities, looking for those analogs was the thing that I was trained how to do. It’s the thing that carried over into the work that I do now. But it’s not a thing that other disciplines, at least in my experience, that those are emphasized in the same way, that that associative framing is nurtured.

Ross: Yes, that is absolutely vital. Trying to make your own thoughts explicit to the purpose of communicating them helps elucidate them in your own mind in any case.

Madeline: There’s a story I’d like to tell about, I went to a Jesuit university in Seattle, and I was part of the honors program there. The honors program there was very small. We did Heraclitus to Hitler in two years, literature, philosophy, and history. We’re in this tiny cohort, and it was like mini-grad school, except we’re undergrads. The thing that we were told at the beginning of the program was, we don’t know what you guys are going to do. Some of you will be PhDs, some of you will leave academia entirely, some of you are going to go on to do wildly different things but what you will know how to do by the end of your career here is how to communicate, and there will never not be a demand for people who know how to communicate. I tell people that story a lot that it’s about not just finding the information, but finding out how to share it effectively.

Ross: Part of that is the structure, whether that’s the flow or one of the relationship is what the structure is. That goes to the associations, or the narrative, or the continuity, or what it is that links things.

Madeline: Yes, the mental model, the shared mind palace, the way of seeing.

Ross: Which takes us to your science fiction. Because that’s precisely what you’re doing; you’re building a vision, a world that people can enter and experience. One of the things is distinct about science fiction from fiction is you are creating a world that people have never experienced before. What is that process?

Madeline: I get asked a lot about, what is the difference between doing foresight scenario development, narrative scenario development, and that type of world-building, and pure science fiction world-building, or pure commercial fiction world-building, and one is that in commercial fiction, you can actually take up the trends that interest you without regard to a project brief. You’re writing something for yourself, you’re writing something about purely what you’re interested in, and you can fudge the details a little bit more. Whereas within the scope of a project brief, that’s often very limited. We need the future of X in year Y in demographic Z whereas there’s a lot more room, a lot more space when you’re writing something that’s purely for yourself. But what they have in common is that you need to cultivate a curatorial sensibility, you have to know, in the same way that a filmmaker knows, or a photographer knows, or a curator knows, you have to know how big the frame is, and what fits inside of it, and what you want those focal points to be.
Is this a story about a certain technology? Is this a story about a certain trend? And in fact, what is this story about? And what are you trying to say? What are these people going to walk away with when they walk away from this story? And those considerations are the same. Because you only have so many words, and you only have so much time, and you only have much attentional bandwidth from the people who are eventually going to read this. You can’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink. To make your point or to or to show them a world, you have to decide where the camera is going to go and what it’s going to focus on, and those are similar considerations regardless of who you’re writing to, it’s just that one can be very tightly focused and another gives you a bigger broader aspect ratio.

Ross: In either case, you are creating a world of content, which must be internally consistent. As you said, you can only show so much of that in so many words, but you are building a world.

Madeline: Yes.

Ross: Of course if it is based in the future, it’s a projection forward from today; taking various trends or developments, and the way those interact. What is that process of creating the world and making it consistent?

Madeline: Having prior experience in history, I tend to look at historical examples. When did something similar like this happen in the past? What happened then? How has this been experienced by others before? And not so that I can exactly replicate that event or exactly replicate that experience, but so that I can get an understanding of how do humans behave under these pressures? What have we seen before? How have we seen people behave under similar pressures? People are still doing this now; with regard to the current pandemic, they’ve looked back at 1918. In 100 years, other humans will look back at what happened in 2020, and then probably back into 1918. I think that it always pays off to look back and say, oh, okay, how do humans react in this scenario? Because humans are the ones who’ve built the world. They’re the ones who make choices about their world, it doesn’t just happen.
Those things don’t spring up out of nowhere. The world is this way, because in many ways, people chose it to be this way, or because someone profited from it being this way. There are fundamental drives, in our species that shape our reality. When I’m building something, or imagining how something might turn out, I tend to look at prior examples and think about how that might have changed, or what might cause it to change, or what would have to change in a population, or what would have to change in a group for that to be different.

Ross: So in a way, all sensemaking comes from an understanding of humanity?

Madeline: I think so. There are obvious things like, what does a rising temperature do to a population of animals? What does a heat dome do to all the shellfish in British Columbia? It kills them; we know that. Humans were involved in that process, undoubtedly, but it’s a one-to-one relationship, we know that that heat is going to kill those animals. There are certain scientific truths and certain laws of physical reality that you take into account. Certainly, very far future hard SF is really good at that, extrapolating what human life would be under certain physical conditions, way far off of our planet. How do we find a way to continue reproducing in space? How do we find a way to live in space without our skeleton stretching out? How do we find a way to live in space without our fingernails falling off? And half of the men developing astigmatism over time? There are certain physical truths that occur. There are certain realities that you have to acknowledge and figure out but that’s the fun part. That’s not the homework, that’s the fun part. That’s the right bent, you have to be bent in the right direction to enjoy that; getting to think creatively about that is one of the pleasures and privileges of both of my jobs.

Ross: Absolutely. To round out, do you have any final words of advice for listeners on how to thrive on overload? How to make sense of the wonderful world of information that we live in today?

Madeline: Take notes. It’s funny because I’m the third wheel in an MBA course right now, I have two brilliant real instructors, Zan Chandler and Susan LK Gorbet. They are amazing instructors, and I’m just the peanut gallery. But one of the things that we talked about with our students recently was that you won’t remember, you think that you’ll remember, you think that you’re going to remember, but you won’t. When you see these signals, when you see these trends pieces, when you see these stories that trouble you or delight you or a thing that gives you that sense of oh, wait, this is different, this is new, or oh, this is exciting, or I can’t wait to see how this one goes wrong, find a way to document it, find a way to add it to the total corpus of knowledge, find a way to do that, so that you can reach back and look more deeply into the things that fascinated you.
Take those notes. Find a place to put those fleeting thoughts. When we talk about doomscrolling, when we talk about social media, when we talk about information overload, one of the reasons that we get attached to stories and don’t know what to do with that attachment, when we get attached to information or attached to images and we find them preying on us later, or we find huge amounts of cognitive load attached to them later, it’s because you haven’t put them somewhere. I’m not saying compartmentalize, that’s not my advice here. My advice is to create boundaries for yourself and find a place to put all of your imaginings, a place to put those suppositions, a place to put those questions, find a place to put your questions. Not so that you can forget them but so that you can remember them later. Document the history of them for yourself. Find a place that’s just for you to put those things.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you much for your time and your insight, Madeline. I really appreciate it.

Madeline: Thank you.

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