The forgotten joys of the screen saver:
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. [...]
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. [...]
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. [...]
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.