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. Read More