"The genre, its own kind of endurance art, shuns immediacy."

Insulting headline aside, I kind of love this:

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.

Previously, previously.

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17 Responses:

  1. brone says:

    Does anybody that pays for their own electricity pine for the screen saver?

    • jwz says:

      "Fuck you," he explained.

    • MattyJ says:

      Because that's always my thought when a screensaver comes on. "Goddamn this screensaver, costing me two and a half cents a year."

      • brone says:

        There's 8760 hours in a year. How much does 1KWh cost? 1 watt year is then 8.76*that.

        Let's suppose your monitor is in use 33% of the time - 8 hours a day. So the options are: it spends 66% of its time showing the screen saver, drawing 100% of its usual power draw, or it spends 66% of its time off, in DPMS sleep or whatever, drawing 0% of its usual power draw.

        Suppose the monitor draws 30W. That's typical for an LCD. Assume 1KWh cost US$0.20. I assume this blog's readership is international, and so that is some kind of balance between the cost in Bum Fuck, TX (US$0.05/KWh) and Berlin, Germany, in Europe (US$0.35/KWh). So, run it 100% of the time and it costs like $52; run it 33% of the time, and it's more like $17. A difference of around $35/year.

        Suppose you've got a decent CRT, like you might have had in the 90s, when screen savers were in their pomp. I myself am a scion of wealth and privilege, and I had a 17" CRT at the time... 90W, I'm sure. So multiply everything by 3. ~$100/year.

        Anyway, $35, $100, whatever... call it what you like, and describe this as a lot of money or $$$fuckall, but it's more than a couple of cents. I haven't even accounted for any extra draw due to GPU or CPU. But whatever. It's up to you. But however you play with the figures, I really do still think you'll be measurably better off with DPMS.

        • jwz says:

          I really do still think you'll be measurably better off with DPMS.

          But what is your annual budget for hanging posters on your wall? Personally I live in a featureless unit cube but I hope someday to upgrade it to a frictionless sphere.

          • brone says:

            Yes... I think I see what you mean, and I suppose I wasn't thinking of it from that perspective. I tend to think of my PC mainly as a functional item, that contributes nothing to the artistic appearance of my living quarters, and that colours my viewpoint.

            But since this is the internet, I can't possibly back down. So let me point out that if you spend $X on a painting or print or something, it'll continue to look like that indefinitely. Meanwhile, your PC's monitor will requires a continuous injection of cash to maintain its appearance.

            • jwz says:

              it'll continue to look like that indefinitely

              Which is the fundamental nature of what screen savers are not!

            • pavel_lishin says:

              It might help to think of a screensaver as an aquarium, as the article mentions Stranger in a Strange Land doing.

    • phuzz says:

      The ability for your computer to put the screen into a standby mode (DPMS) was only introduced in 1993. PCs of that period didn't have much in the way of powersaving, so until then your PC and monitor would either be running at full tilt, or off. A screensaver didn't add an appreciable amount to your energy consumption, but they did prevent screen burn.

      As an aside, I had an LCD monitor, that when it got old, started to get what looked like screen burn if it was displaying a high contrast image for more than about 30mins. I think it was no longer providing quite enough voltage to flip all the liquid crystals to their new state, so I'd be left with a ghostly image of (eg) HUD elements from a game for a while.

      • brone says:

        I've had screen burn on my 2015 Macbook Pro after leaving it downloading something overnight in Windows, and having it fail to activate the screen saver for reasons unknown. A noticeable after-image of the Firefox download window stuck around for about 8 hours...

        A good reason for having your LCD monitor switch itself off. Prevents screen burn and draws 0W at the same time.

        Not such a good reason for having your LCD monitor run a screen saver... prevents screen burn, and continues to use electricity at its usual rate. You can probably find something better to spend your money on.

    • tfb says:

      Why yes, I do. But that's because I am old enough and worked in the right environments to remember large CRTs (not the CRTs PCs typically had) and I know just hiw much power they used when they were on compared to any kind of modern display. My laptop's screen is cold when it is on, CRTs would catch fire if their vents were blocked.

      If you care about your energy use turn the air conditioning down and walk or ride a bike: your computer's screen saver is not making any significant difference.

  2. Wout says:

    I just realized that the animated backgrounds of Android launchers are ideal to run xscreensaver modules on, providing that glimpse of reverie while you decide between apps…

    • Chad D Altenburg says:

      Would this work for apps that do server side rendering? Just curious because some apps use what google refers to as a callout object to perform part of the server side rendering. As a result, from my limited understand of things, the end user has no real control over the app when they switch to a different one.

    • jwz says:

      The next Android version will support both Daydreams and Live Wallpapers.

  3. emacsomancer says:

    On the dark side, I once had a Windows screensaver fry my video card.

    On the lighter side, I always stick xscreensaver on my machines. I love that new screensavers continue to be introduced. One (amongst many other things admittedly) that drove me off of Ubuntu onto rolling distros, was getting new xscreensavers in a timely fashion. (Or, rather, not having my system break trying to manually force install new versions.)

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