The forgotten joys of the screen saver.
When I first encountered Jorge Luis Borges’s “The House of Asterion,” a short story whose narrator runs with madness through an endless labyrinth, a remote feeling of déjà vu eased into one of bizarre, welcome recognition. The house’s infinite doors, its emptiness, the dizzy futility—Borges seemed to be describing a popular screen saver from the nineties. Surely you know the one, the Windows maze, that redbrick warren of untold pivots summoned by the computer monitor when no one was around. The ending of Borges’s story, wherein the narrator is revealed as the slain minotaur of Greek mythology, only reinforced the connection; to me, screen savers have always afforded some tenuous connection to the afterlife. The first one I can remember, on my family’s household desktop, featured a crimson psychedelia that overtook the screen’s blackness, a kaleidoscope of paisleys and helixes forever in a state of irresolution. Late at night, I’d prepare an unhealthy snack and sit patiently in front of the monitor to watch it, a child beseeching death. How fitting would it be, I thought then, if we all ended up trapped behind a pane of glass roiling with pixels? My instinct was only reaffirmed by a childhood friend’s widowed grandmother, who held onto the conviction that her husband was trying to communicate to her through her Dell’s wispy screen saver. She spent her evenings careful not to disturb the cursor, basking in her lover’s strange séance.
If screen savers still have an eschatological tinge for me, it’s also because of their own demise. We no longer need them now, when our phones nudge us at all hours, our inboxes bloat, and dystopian headlines scorch themselves onto our consciousnesses. Our laptops, when we look away from them, have optimized screen protection with a bland and dreamless sleep mode. What we abandoned with the death of screen savers—themselves testifiers of disuse—was a culture that could accept walking away from life onscreen.
Might we call the screen saver an artistic ideal? F. T. Marinetti, in 1909, planted the flag of futurism in the art world with the following declaration: “Up to now, literature has extolled a contemplative stillness, rapture, and reverie. We intend to glorify aggressive action, a restive wakefulness, life at the double, the slap and the punching fist.” Despite screen savers’ frequent tendency towards futurist abstractions, they revel in the stillness, rapture, and reverie Marinetti despised. Their banality approaches sublimity. Of course, we’re now used to the heroic nostalgia with which custodians of culture acquire relics from the Internet’s own dusty, evanescent museum. As emoticons, computer games, and GIFs are exhumed and then corralled into prestige institutions to be coated with the respectable patina of Art, we marvel at how what once was ubiquitous or clunky can now be considered aesthetically or conceptually profound. But of all the overlooked digital antiques of the computer’s youth, perhaps the most thrilling is the screen saver. Visually mesmerizing, intellectually engaging, and nearly decommodified, the best screen savers achieve the virtues of multiple art movements. They even make a damning statement: the faintest human touch breaks their spell. Websites like ScreenSaverGallery circumvent institutional gatekeepers by encouraging users to download a new artwork in the form of a screen saver each month. I enjoy downloading these screen savers despite their poetic futility: today, any laptop that runs a screen saver is burning more energy than it’s saving.
Of the meager screen-saver histories available, a few nod politely to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the science-fiction novel that augured the invention with a single sentence: “Opposite his chair was a stereovision tank disguised as an aquarium; he switched it on, guppies and tetras gave way to the face of the well-known Winchell Augustus Greaves.” There is a certain joy in alighting upon the screen saver here—in a 1961 novel, sure, but also in Heinlein’s not-too-distant future, the one we’re now living in, sort of. (These days, looking at Amazon pages for virtual aquaria—now a withered industry—yields only a glimpse of the past.)
The first actual screen-saver software was published in a 1983 issue of Softalk, a now-defunct magazine devoted to the culture taking shape around home computers. Though the name implies its subscribers were interested in soft-core phone sex, Softalk delivered coverage on programming, gaming, trade, and more in the early eighties. Readers of the issue in question would have turned to a page graced with a headline in a cataclysmic font—SAVE YOUR MONITOR SCREEN!—and an article with the same exclamatory tone: “At this very moment your video monitor or IBM Monochrome Display may be in danger!” Less exciting was the screen-saver code itself; after three minutes, the screen simply went black.
Along with hip-hop, sitcoms, and the economy, screen savers flourished during the Clinton years, reaching an apotheosis of creative expression. This gilded age was made possible by yet another misleadingly titled enterprise: After Dark, a software company headquartered in the Bay Area that effectively disrupted the screen-saver market. Their mischievous additions to the genre included customizable classics like airborne toasters, a flying-through-space simulator, and a package of pop culture–themed modules like Star Trek and The Simpsons. At least two masterpieces were available for those who preferred Windows products—the aforementioned brick maze but also those multicolored “three-dimensional” pipes, which repeatedly constructed and deconstructed in a manner that verged on Escherian. I still remember evenings spent hunched over the school library’s Jurassic computers, transfixed by angelfish and blue tangs, by galaxies, by spinning geometries whose math engaged me in a way math class itself never did. Now, old screen savers provide a granular texture of the everyday that allows me to fully inhabit other points in time.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam is currently staging an entire exhibition devoted to retro screen savers, titled “Sleep Mode.” In a wistful era that indulges in phenomena like Simpsonwave and Pokémon Go, the appeal is less than mysterious. The exhibition, curated by the artist Rafaël Rozendaal, incorporates a range of ludic modules from After Dark, Apple, and Microsoft. In one sense, it seems that divorcing these screen savers from the mundanity of their original habitats—drab cubicles, home offices, bibliothecal spaces—risks downplaying the aspects of serendipity and smallness so essential to the art. It doesn’t help that they’re projected onto large walls, turned into an Immersive Experience. Still, the enthusiasm for something so ephemeral makes the exhibition feel necessary, albeit in a kind of admirably unnecessary way.
You can’t consume a screen saver in an instant. You can’t fast-forward or rewind one. The genre, its own kind of endurance art, shuns immediacy. Fugitives from time, screen savers possess no real beginning or end. Their ouroboric nature is perhaps why preservations on YouTube, whether ten minutes or twelve hours long, tend to evoke disenchantment. Decades ago, stumbling upon a screen saver in a shared living room—or perhaps finding an entire office full of them at lunchtime, cubicles lambent with workers’ judiciously chosen modules—likely signaled your own solitude. When you’re watching one intentionally, that feeling never arrives.
Yet technology occasions its own estrangements. One role of the screen saver, no longer tasked with rescuing our monitors from burned-in “ghost images,” is to mitigate the loneliness invited by staring at a screen. Consider Electric Sheep, a project launched in 1999 and still active today, which lets anyone code for a surreal, ever-changing abstraction seemingly designed for viewing under the influence of a certain narcotic. Once computers with the software drift into slumber, they dream fractal visions crowd sourced by thousands of networked users, and a traditionally intimate experience becomes a communal one. And let’s not forget the many people who memorialize their beloveds with screen savers, who use them to mourn, to keep the departed hovering around one’s memory. Like countless others, I’ve programmed family portraiture to bob idly across my inactive screen. Then there are the slick stock photographs of fjords and aurora borealis so endemic to LCD and plasma, the islands we long to be marooned on. Screen savers depict what we desire—often with a Ken Burns panning effect. That escapism is so central to the medium’s imagery might be because the earliest screen savers played in bureaucracies where corporate disgust or indifference likely reigned. Think of all those sun-soaked beaches, those loved ones and pets, even the sexual fantasies that materialize when our screens think we’re away. Perhaps there’s even a dark yearning for the noumena of those wispier forms, the desire to be cast into oblivion.
A friend recalls a nightly ritual from childhood. She would station a muted laptop in her bedroom and sink into hypnagogia watching the pyrotechnics of her iTunes music visualizer. She says it soothed her, like how the abiding shush of an electric fan comforts other children. Personally, the thought of being asleep in the presence of such an infinite yonder, an obvious metaphor for the mind, would have proved too disquieting. Maybe it was because they thrived in empty rooms that screen savers always felt a little haunted to me. Windows 98 even offered a horror-themed setting, a haunted manse with a silver moon inching its way across the screen to mark the passage of time. Yet I always found the spectral wisp, that pervasive subgenre exemplified by Windows’ Mystify or Apple’s Flurry, much more eldritch. Growing up, I watched Mystify’s ribbed diffractions of iridescent light and, with the aforementioned grandmother in mind, reckoned it a form of necromancy forever beyond my interpretation.
If the nineties and early aughts were a time of collaborative whimsy for screen savers, our current era treats them as an afterthought. Inspecting my laptop’s default modes, which include jubilant penguins, pastoral landscapes, and the cosmos, it becomes apparent that today’s screen savers are designed to tranquilize. That’s a shame. The screen savers of my youth told me life was full of rapture and reverie, and stillness, too.
Zack Hatfield is a writer living in New York.