Managing Abyss Gaze In a Time of Difficult Futures

Scott Smith
Jun 1, 2020 · 8 min read

Listening for signals when the news is dark

This is part of an ongoing series created to supplement our upcoming book, “How to Future: Leading and Sensemaking in an Age of Hyperchange,” to be published in September 2020 by Kogan Page. Some items in this series are co-written by Madeline Ashby and edited by Susan Cox-Smith.

Over the past few months, we’ve logged onto numerous social platforms to find colleagues in the fields of research, strategy, forecasting and related fields posting messages like this:

“Sorry, I had to step away for a bit. The flood of bad news was too depressing. I took a break, looked videos of animals, and now I’m back.”

Of course, the torrent of wall-to-wall negative information, bad-to-worse statistics, rolling emergencies, theories (both conspiracy and legitimate), think pieces, scenarios, and other inputs have been as global in volume, scope, and bleakness as the pandemic itself. Even for ourselves, long-practicing professionals in the foresight and futures research fields who maintain a steady diet of signals and information — often from the darker corners of the world — this continues to be a difficult time that requires some critical insight-distancing.

We often get paid to think the unthinkable, to imagine the unimaginable, and then lean into the ambiguity or discomfort posed by the implications of our scenarios or analysis. We keep company with more than a few black swans, and sometimes, they come home to roost. In scanning the horizon, we’re frequently on the lookout for emerging issues that might, just might, careen unexpectedly into existing dynamics or trends, and eventually create an entirely new scenario that once seemed unlikely. There are always intersections or events we can’t fully anticipate, or understand how they may go against the existing protections of policy, planning, or design. Of course, we’re also looking for positives, the little-noticed sparks, or catalysts that could create an as-yet-unforeseen good. More often than not, keeping track of the “what ifs” is the central part of our work as professionals in a world of uncertainty, in both the short- and long-term.

With the echoic nature of the tools we use — primarily open-source social media, news, and research resources — the world right now is indeed a dark place to go to work. To quote writer Warren Ellis’s 2016 novella NORMAL, a too-close-to-home story about a futurist who is checked into a detox center due to a cognitive breakdown:

“Some people call it ‘abyss gaze’. Gaze into the abyss all day and the abyss will gaze into you.”

So, when almost all the information in the universe is available to you, and practically breathing down your neck, how in the world do you deal with the relentless exposure — much less sort and analyze what you’ve been exposed to? Even if you aren’t a future-watcher, and are just trying to keep up with fast-moving life-or-death data while still trying to do your day job, or protect your family, how do you hang on and not risk going dark when one moment can change everything?

We deal directly with this question in our upcoming book, How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange. It was written before the current current crisis, amidst the cascading uncertainties already thrown up by Brexit, Trump, climate disruption, and other global challenges. In the book, we suggest that “actively sensing,” or being someone who is generally always attuned and open to new signals, requires taking care of the equipment that allows you to do so.

This is true even in times when the news isn’t so unremittingly difficult to process. A sommelier doesn’t drink the whole cellar and then pronounce themselves an expert: they spend time examining not just the provenance of the material, but also their fleeting, instinctive, and (eventually) learned responses to it. Your goal is not to imbibe all the information available and give yourself a data hangover, it’s to develop and improve your ability to taste the important (and relevant) notes. This ability to scan at arm’s length takes on new importance when the news itself becomes difficult to digest.

Based on our own extensive experience over a few collective decades, here are some strategies that can help you manage in the moment as well as longer-term, and also aid you in avoiding burnout or diminishing your ability to scout or scan for signals that are useful.

Balance the load with a network

Individuals build specialized knowledge, develop good critical radar for sources, and track rises and falls in information trends quite well. A group with diverse interests, tolerances, knowledge of industry dialects and players, strategically spread across time zones, can work together to keep their eyes on the landscape, and save any one person from burning out on breadth, depth, and span of material. This approach can also help mitigate overly negative or overly positive views of one person.

Since the pandemic struck, we’ve found connecting broader networks of curious minds to be more effective. WhatsApp groups, various Slacks, and Discord instances have been useful, as they provide space for discussion of various stories and signals, and debate about emerging narratives, whereas aggregated link dumps such as newsletters don’t provide that valuable networking of insights. Open social forums such as Twitter and Reddit are more susceptible to values signaling and status-focused firefights, which in turn heightens, not diminishes, the anxiety around dealing with tough topics in difficult times.

Find new voices to learn from

Likewise, not every long-term resource or voice is still focused on the same topics they started with or has the same politics or known biases. People and institutions naturally drift, change interests, or position in power structures. It’s good to take a moment now and then to ask if the resource you follow, the feed you track, or the readers they attract are right for your needs. Keeping a constant check on the filter bubble is critical, and this churn of insights is incredibly valuable in keeping our own views fresh, challenged, and informed in ways we can’t inform ourselves. It can also help lift the fog around difficult topics, and provide new channels for understanding uncertain situations, or to recalibrate where you stand on challenging, hard-to-process issues.

Maintain some distance from the data

Of course, this is harder when it involves mass unemployment, injustice, large-scale dislocation, a pandemic disease impacting your street than, say, artificial intelligence or 3D printing. Nonetheless, even while this drama involves you as a stakeholder of an affected community, try to take a step back from the storyline and know that the data will change, and the signals eventually improve, degrade, or shift. The picture is never crystal clear right away, and it’s exactly the critical but dispassionate attention to new information that helps us gain clarity over time.

Skip the rabbit holes

Of course, it’s always useful to pick up some functional knowledge along the way. Some of this comes from your scope of research, as reading widely can often help you identify what the critical topics are. Some can come from finding reliable experts and letting them do some filtration for you. This is where building good critical research and thinking skills can stand you in good stead. Learning to let sources do some of the work for you pays off both in terms of managing your long-term exposure to sometimes toxic debates and can be a useful way to find out what’s worth burning valuable grey cells for, and what can be left for later.

Look up, now look back down

The relationship between information consumption and physical response is clear. A 2017 study from the American Psychological Association found that 56% of Americans felt stressed when consuming news media. The “intermittent reward” system that comes from the endless dread-scroll ignites all four major reward pathways in the brain. Constantly poking your brain (and those of others) to elicit these physical responses has a significant impact on general health, from sleep quality to blood pressure. Give it a break when you can. It will improve your ability to cope the information flow in the longer term.

Much of the above applies to non-pandemic situations as well as to periods of depressing or uncertain news. While we won’t always be in this seeming limbo-land of ambiguous signals and variable truth, good information scanning and sensemaking practices should stand up in more testing conditions, but also see you through smoother, less mentally challenging contexts. Learning to be a good active senser, or refining this capacity, in all weather is a foundation for better, more aware, more flexible future thinking and acting. All the more reason to treat this capability sensitively and thoughtfully.

Practical Futuring

Tools, tactics & stories from the field.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store