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A farewell to screen savers, the imagined dreams of our machines

Maze gif CROP original original

Jacob Brogan looks back a relatively recent relic, the oddly charming screen saver, in this piece from Slate.

(And no, I definitely didn’t used to wage war with my siblings over who got to pick our family computer’s screen saver. You for sure have me confused with someone else.)

I can’t recall the last time I watched a screen saver flicker to life. That’s largely because we don’t need them anymore, at least not for the reasons we once did. In the early days of computing, screen savers were a software solution to a hardware problem. Old cathode ray tube monitors were vulnerable to a condition known as burn-in, in which projecting a single image for too long would permanently alter the screen, imprinting it with a faint phantom double of the thing it had been forced to linger over. It’s this spectral quality that gave burn-in its other name, the one I’ve always preferred: ghost images.

The obvious solution was to simply turn off the monitor, and the first wave of screen savers did little more than automate that process. Leave the computer undisturbed for a few minutes, and the screen would shift to black, much as it does when a modern laptop sends itself to sleep. But as digital artist Rafaël Rozendaal explains, “Programmers later realized that you could do more interesting things. … That is when the screensaver changed from a purely functional programme into a space for play.” Along the way, they became the variegated static of early personal computing, a subtle thrum at the edge of perception.

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