boris, an after dark screensaver

Requiem for a Toaster

It may be difficult to express to the generations born into the current ubiquity and relative affordability of consumer computing devices– just what an emblem of affluence and modernity the personal computer was in the early 90’s. The screensaver as a mode of software (or, if you’re charitable enough to hang with me for a bit, as a medium), was a sort of conspicuous consumption at this time. A gesture that was unfamiliar to the television-connected class-aspirational family computers of past years– the ZX Spectrums or Commodore 64s, or the Apple IIs and Texas Instruments machines common in schools in the 80’s. I say ‘conspicuous’ because the screensaver was the performance of an expensive computer left on– to no justifiable purpose. A way to turn a computer into an aquarium, a fireworks show, a couple of Fresnel lenses rubbing out moiré patterns in a darkened room reserved just for such a display. A room reserved for the grinding and clicking of a new and expensive family member.

The Apple Macintosh especially, by virtue of being an all-in-one device with no separate power switch for its display (properly powered-off through its on-screen user interface) was meant to be left on but sleeping, its fan churning out the hot breath of power wasted, a box of potential energy. An attending new class of computer owners seemed to hardly know what to do with their expensive and tightly-coiled devices outside of word processing and the occasional game of Shufflepuck Cafe– only so many Macintosh owners were ever going to actually do any desktop publishing. That Hypercard, an early hypermedia toolkit that few users knew quite what to do with, was a first-party featured app, illustrates the option-paralysis of both the stewards and owners of this new hardware platform. As a child I was highly fixated on computers, and the original Macintosh was the purest totem for that fixation, the platonic ideal. I had encountered a handful of them– a friend’s father who was a government employee had one in his office, running a Star Trek-skinned Space War style LAN game called Net Trek. A friend of my father’s was a “commercial artist” and she had an expensive slab-Mac with a grayscale display that rotated into a document orientation. A slumber party at another child’s house revealed a Mac Plus glimpsed through a study door, with Dungeon of Doom on it. For a handful of years my mother married a man who owned a business selling Mexican antiques. We were, I now realize in retrospect, desperately poor before she married him, and returned to that state shortly after– I, a bit more bruised from the experience. I hated him more than I’ve ever hated another human since, but I remember the screensaver running on the Macintosh in his cluttered office, filled with overflowing glass ashtrays and papers. As rain crawled down the windows during a heavy summer thunderstorm in Texas, the Moiré screen saver on the black and white Mac display was doing something silent and arcane, and the image has never left the back of my eyelids.

I’m lingering here on the Macintosh, which may seem niche in the grand scope of personal computing, because it was ground-zero for the screensaver, detonated by the advent of shareware software distribution (and good old fashioned software piracy). Looking for a way to show off their pricey new computers, users traded hand-labeled floppies of games and screensavers through an ad-hoc sneakernet from household to household. Making these rounds, the screensaver became the first and perhaps only populist creative computing medium– “useless” software that required no user interaction, algorithmic art totally freed from the expectations of games, cinema or even demoscene programming stunt– but viewed by tens of thousands of participants. Screensavers quickly became a ubiquitous part of personal computing. The popularity of Berkley Systems’ After Dark suite of screensavers was massive, and the “flying toaster” logo was iconic, worming its way through popular culture. Computers began spending much of their lives dreaming– bucking their intended economic uses, frivolously knitting fractals or scattering pixel-thick lights across an imaginary skyline. Even when they became instrumentalized at their peak, screensavers defied their local workplaces and hammered away at distributed computing tasks for an imagined greater good, like SETI@home or Folding@home. Today, capitalist recapture of those otherwise idle computer cycles burns endless amounts of power creating and consolidating crypto-wealth in a ponzi scheme of increasingly diminishing returns and demoralizing effects (sometimes against the will of the computer’s owner in the form of cryptojacking malware– a digital Rumpelstiltskin demanding an infinite spool of heavy, useless gold).

It’s easy to write off the importance of screensavers as an outlet for creative computing today– especially in an age of less burn-in prone LCD monitors that simply power off when idle. We are, however, living in an age of widespread set-top video streaming boxes. The opportunity to retrieve the paradigm of the shareware screensaver for these ubiquitous devices still seems riper to me than schemes to sell single-purpose art-subscription connected displays to the wealthy– the prize here being eyeballs, not dollars. A space for DIY computer art to return to the public consciousness. It would unfortunately require the participation of tech and media monoliths like Apple, Google and Amazon, who seem perfectly happy with filling this idle time themselves. Pirate set-top platforms like Kodi and XBox Media Center did indeed offer an opportunity for user-created screensavers, but they were embattled enough in their lives that they’ll likely be forgotten by the time these words reach your eyes. Apple, the archon that I started this story with, could create a path to replace their own immaculate Apple TV helicopter-shot spectacles of empire with something crudely and gloriously anarchic, created by the feverish Roblox generation, but they won’t, we know they won’t. It’s a security risk, a performance risk, a PR risk, a risk.

Inheritors of the indie and art-games boom of the 2010’s have already attempted connections to a history of screensavers– creating screensaver game jams (Nijman 2016), art collections (Pipkin 2019), and baroque hybrid works like Rachel Simone Weil’s 2017 Alter Dark, a web application that creates custom screensaver ROM images for the 90’s Nintendo Entertainment System (to be run in emulation or on EPROM-burned cartridges for original hardware) (Weil 2017). Each of these works is better understood in the context that they reach out from (indie games, software art, and retro homebrew, respectively) than from the affordances and promise of screensavers themselves. What seems to be missing is not, by any stretch, works that are eager to reproduce the formal qualities of screensavers– zero-player games (Pedercini 2020) and Tamagotchi-style desk accessories (Lawhead 2015) are readily available– but rather that multitude of waiting-screens-still-lit-but-at-rest with which to play them. The channel. What was lost with the demise of the screensaver was the niche of ‘the useless application’ and its attendant vacuum of formal expectations. A screensaver, in its pure form stands in opposition to usefulness (as for their stated use, screensavers saved about as many actual screens as head shop purchased “VCR head cleaner” has cleaned actual VCRS).

David O’Reilly’s Mountain, while championed by art audiences, was met with anger and derision from commercial game audiences– derision typified by the reaction of one popular games YouTube personality, who called it “fucking nothing”. I can imagine a wholly different reception for Mountain as a screensaver, however. If it had announced itself as a screensaver, activated by idleness rather than intention, it might have been a gesture towards reclaiming that word from those who invariably used it as a criticism. It seems sometimes that games are no longer allowed the luxury of uselessness– in many ways a modern game is just a capture space for overflowing labor, for laborers who no longer know how to rest.

“Screensaver” is not just an expectation of a level of software interactivity (none), it’s an expectation of user attention– minimal moments of shallow attention spread out over a long period of time, like a fireplace, aquarium, or a lava lamp. A screensaver could exist at any level of technical sophistication, but it is straightforward in the relationship we are meant to have with it and it’s one that is very different from a game or even an art installation. Screensavers were a low-stakes proposition given a briefly generous window of public attention that now seems impossible in the accelerating march-into-inferno of technological progress. To declare a work as a screensaver is a step backwards from the flames we have set, a retreat back into a hallowed but largely unused dark room where the computer sleeps and has troubling dreams about the days when it will no longer be allowed to do so.

Lawhead, Nathalie. 2015. “Electric Love Potato (Desktop Assistant)… Potatoware.” Electric Love Potato (blog). 2015.

Nijman, Jan Willem. 2016. “#screensaverjam.” Itch.Io. 2016.

Pedercini, Paolo. 2020. “Games Without Players – Molleindustria.” 2020.

Pipkin, Everest. 2019. “Screensaver Collection by Everest Pipkin.” Itch.Io. 2019.

Weil, Rachel Simone. 2017. “Alter Dark.” Alter Dark. 2017.

Requiem for a Toaster menu: