Too Much Information… or Can Everyone Just Shut Up For a Moment, Some of Us Are Trying to Think by Dave Gorman: A Review
Too Much Information is a book by British comedian Dave Gorman with the stated intention to closely examine “the maelstrom of data that’s swirling about our heads”, and which, over the course of forty short chapters that it is “all just a load of balls”, about which nothing can be done (although the overall tone of the book is rather less downcast than that summary would imply).
Although a review of a book which claims to be a (comedic) examination of the absurdities and inanities of the present day (id est 2013, the publication date) might seem an odd inclusion in a newsletter with an alleged theme of the future, it should first be noted that the trends identified within have shown no sign of halting in the seven years hence, and indeed many have progressed from the merely irritating to downright sinister, with ill omens for our future on this earth. The second note one must take is that there is no good reason to believe that technological systems (in particular, the world wide web) will play anything of a diminished role in the short-term fate of humankind – even once our present pestilence no longer weighs upon us so. Ergo, it is absolutely imperative that we inspect as closely as it is in our power to do so all irregularities, all manifestations of avarice, of palaver, or of animus that may arise within our cyberspace – if we do not, we may come to discover that it is insurmountable, that too much has been snatched from us, and all is lost.
It should be made clear that Too Much Information is not, in the sense that people usually mean it, a book ‘about’ politics. No government or party official is mentioned except in the most trifling fashion. Nevertheless, one can – should one know where to look – find politics oozing out of this book, in that it remarks on the cruel world that is constructed when profit towers over human need, when rhyme and reason are alike laid on Mammon’s altar, although (as we shall see) the antecedent is rarely made so plain in its nature.
One aspect of this book particularly deserving of remark is chapter 12, “Buying a Record is Not a Form of Protest”, in which Gorman details the 2009 campaign to move Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” (originally released in 1992) to #1 on the charts for Christmas, in place of “The Climb”, a cover of a Hannah Montana songreleased by winner of then-most-recent winner of The X Factor Joe McElderry, as had happened in the previous four years. Although Zack de la Rocha (vocalist for Rage Against the Machine) claimed to be “very, very ecstatic” that the campaign succeeded (and doubtless Shelter, the homeless charity which found itself £70,000 richer as a result of the ordeal, was loath to offer excess complaint), Gorman takes rather more cynical an eye to the whole affair. Although Gorman does not note that both “Killing in the Name” and “The Climb” are owned by Sony (through Epic Records and Syco Music, respectively), he does note that, since the purpose of a record company is to sell records, the nature of this protest is a futile one at best. Even though Rage against the Machine is genuinely rebellious in spirit and lyrics (both capital-P Politically and in the sense of being opposed to admittedly uber-schmaltzy pop ballads of the sort The Climb is a perfect example of), one would suspect that a better means of anti-schmaltz action would be the grass-roots promotion of bands doing interesting things, or even something that was totally non-transactional in nature. Indeed, Gorman points out how the matter serves not to tar nor blacken the X Factor edifice, but rather “aggrandises and emboldens it” and how the true point was not to actually accomplish any material nor immaterial aims, but rather to “be part of a movement” and to be “the noise” for a time. A wise lesson for us all to learn. Be content not with symbolic victories, only with economic equity and real justice – and then remain forever vigilant.
Another point in this general direction is Chapter 25 (Twitter isn’t the Twolution for Twall of Life’s Twoblems), which I believe more than a few of us could do well to heed. More precisely, this chapter offers a potent warning about the dangers of mistaking the goings-on of Twitter with meaningful action. Although the context here is about whether or not a particular topic is trending (the purely hypothetical example given is “Carbon-Neutral Golf”, something that might actually make for an interesting discussion, although Golf is the salt of the Earth for many reasons besides its CO2 output) and confusing that with any kind of change in anybody’s material circumstances (with the brunt of emphasis being placed upon charity tweets), the parallels with certain sections of the contemporary political battlefield are impossible to ignore. Remember that the catharsis and the pleasure of retweeting cannot feed the starving, nor heal the wounded, nor bring comfort to the disturbed as can material efforts to improve the lives of others. Twitter trends are so named for good reason, and humiliation on social media does not a loss of support imply.
To continue for a moment on charity tweets (of the kind that read “We’re raising money for [topic], please RT”) we may wish to speculate upon whether the hyper-individualism that persists within modern British society (and even more so within the U.S.) exacerbates this particular problem – not only insofar as it moves society’s systems and institutions such that more charity is necessary because of a worse distribution of resources, but also in the sense that it pushes us to seek the influence (and ‘influence’) of individual personæ who are (rightfully or wrongfully) deemed to be ‘powerful’, as opposed to seeking the help of the wider community, possibly in exchange for goods or labour (the examples of these given being organising a bake sale or washing some cars). This is, to be certain, purest conjecture on my part, and may be to truth as the thinnest vapour is to the sturdiest mountain.
Nevertheless, this book is not perfect in its observations and its analyses. Although Gorman is consistently astute in the arena against the presence of madness in our world, his understanding of how this comes about oftentimes seems lacking, and he seems to consistently underestimate to what extent the net and the behaviours of man and machine alike are shaped by a blind, neo-Crassian lust for cold profit. The clearest illustration of this comes in the final chapter (“TMI”), where the following may be found:
“Why does Twitter send me an email telling me what my ‘best’ tweet of the week was? Why is it telling me I’d get more followers if I posted more photos? Why is that assumed to be everyone’s incentive? Can’t I be who I am and get whatever I get? Stop trying to cajole me into being someone else.”
What Gorman fails to realise is that Twitter and similar platforms do not indulge in such behaviours for the sake of it, nor do they act from some misguided ideology that we would all be happier if we have more followers. Rather, this drive is to ensure that as many people as possible spend as much time as possible on the sites, thereby driving ‘engagement’ and (by a sublime mechanism known to the trainèd as “advertising”), by extension, their own profit. Hence his desires for peace and a pub-like atmosphere to the web are impossible to implement without either the total abolition of the profit motive (at least from the relevant section of cyberspace) or some kind of taking into common/national ownership of Twitter and other social media, both of which are far more radical than I believe was intended. Indeed, apparent failure to comprehend that profit is a far more reliable guide to the behaviour of technological (& other) corporations (and in many cases also human people) than any other single factor is something of a regular source of pain for Gorman. Take, for instance, a medium-length discussion of instances where companies have put the recipient of charitable donations to a public vote. Whilst Gorman correctly identifies the desire to ‘trend’ on Twitter as one reason for these votes (neglecting, of course, to mention that the source of this hunger is the associated free advertising and thus improved profit), he fails to notice that a secondary cause is that one cannot keep two minds apart within a single head. To put it less cryptically, the kind of person that has worked in the advertising arm of a corporation, by virtue of being engaged in constant competitive struggle, comes to think of all activities as necessarily competitive in their nature. Thus, all aspects of human existence come to be thought of as competitive, transactional or both. Of course, it is not they who must endure the sickening that being subject to such procedures induces – that is reserved for the unfortunate.
Of course, even the complaints themselves can be seen to err at times—the most egregious example of which being Chapter 31, “What Is the ‘Next Customer Please’ Sign Really a Sign of, Other Than Our Desire to Never Speak to One Another?”, in which Gorman spends close to eight full pages complaining about people who choose to make use of the separation bar at checkouts. Quite aside from the tedium, he fails to see that the true beneficiary of the ‘next costumer please’ is not, as a matter of fact, either shopper, but rather the cashier scanning all the items, this making their job quite a bit easier. Therefore, the early employ of this bar is not some act of disdain, but rather a considerate gesture towards the worker, and it is some disappointment that Gorman fails to recognise this. This is not the only instance in which the complaint is built on feeble wind – Gorman’s dedicated chapter (“Does Jesus Have an IMDb page?”) to a search for “Jesus” derailing faster than one might wish is a problem that has been quite nicely excised from existence on account of the fact that Google’s engines are forever and eternally being updated so as to better fulfil their purpose, and a brief search for “Jesus” shows that one must now go some distance before a non-Jesus image is shown—and even then, the images are still far more relevant than the example Gorman provides. Although it is the nature of all literature dedicated to present technology to soon find itself obsolete, the impermanence of this particular gripe was predictable far in advance of the book’s publication.
Nonetheless, this book is worth your time. Although some have commented that the book seems, at times, to have a slight tinge of the grumpy old man (not entirely without reason), the book as a whole is not nearly so dour as might be suggested by this review (let alone as dour and miserable as the review itself). If you are familiar with Gorman’s other work (in particular, his television show Modern Life is Goodish) there’s little here to suggest that Gorman has undergone any drastic shift in his personality and general demeanour, although his standard excitable tone does not necessarily carry over onto the page.
 The answer to which, I might add, is ‘yes’.