From an essay on Radiohead by Mark Greif, in his book Against Everything:
A description of the condition of the late 1990s could go like this: At the turn of the millennium, each individual sat at a meeting point of shouted orders and appeals, the TV, the radio, the phone and cell, the billboard, the airport screen, the inbox, the paper junk mail. Each person discovered that he lived at one knot of a network, existing without his consent, which connected him to any number of recorded voices, written messages, means of broadcast, channels of entertainment, and avenues of choice. It was a culture of broadcast: an indiscriminate seeding, which needed to reach only a very few, covering vast tracts of our consciousness. To make a profit, only one message in ten thousand needed to take root; therefore messages were strewn everywhere. To live in this network felt like something, but surprisingly little in the culture of broadcast itself tried to capture what it felt like. Instead, it kept bringing pictures of an unencumbered, luxurious life, songs of ease and freedom, and technological marvels, which did not feel like the life we lived.
And if you noticed you were not represented? It felt as if one of the few unanimous aspects of this culture was that it forbade you to complain, since if you complained, you were a trivial human, a small person, who misunderstood the generosity and benignity of the message system. It existed to help you. Now, if you accepted the constant promiscuous broadcasts as normalcy, there were messages in them to inflate and pet and flatter you. If you simply said that this chatter was altering your life, killing your privacy or ending the ability to think in silence, there were alternative messages that whispered of humiliation, craziness, vanishing. What sort of crank needs silence? What could be more harmless than a few words of advice? The messages did not come from somewhere; they were not central, organized, intelligent, intentional. It was up to you to change the channel, not answer the phone, stop your ears, shut your eyes, dig a hole for yourself and get in it. Really, it was your responsibility. The metaphors in which people tried to complain about these developments, by ordinary law and custom, were pollution (as in “noise pollution”) and theft (as in “stealing our time”). But we all knew the intrusions felt like violence. Physical violence, with no way to strike back.
You’ve got mail! That old AOL audio announcement always felt perfectly anodyne — so anodyne that it almost seemed fated to become the hook for a romcom starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Yet at the same time, and this has become clearer in retrospect, it was a threat. The computerized voice, chipper, friendly, always feigning surprise and excitement at the news it delivered, carried a demanding and judgmental undertone. It was a parental voice. You’ve got mail — and you need to go to your inbox and attend to this new mail quickly. Right now, in fact. Only a churlish, sad, unsociable creep would let a new message sit unread in an inbox. You don’t want to be a churlish, sad, unsociable creep, do you?
A threat, and a prophecy. Even as AOL faded away, you’ve got mail burrowed deeper into our consciousness. It became more than a voice in our heads. It became the voice in our heads. It was never a voice of our own — it comes out of the mouth of a stranger, a stranger with an agenda — and yet it now runs through our minds as if on a continuous tape loop. Its implicit command no longer feels like a command. It feels, almost, like a natural phenomenon. We do its bidding intuitively. To be irritated by the voice, even in passing, is, as Greif suggests, to admit to a smallness of self. And so we bury ever deeper that sense of being violated. It’s not the messages that matter anymore. Messages come and go. It’s the messaging that matters. Messaging has become our state of being, the atmosphere in our heads.
And, yes, you’ve got mail.