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In praise of screensavers

Burnt into our memories.

I probably encountered screensavers around the time I read Dune for the first time. Weird as it sounds, the two things have become interlocked in my mind slightly, like one of those magic tricks with separate pieces of metal infuriatingly bent around each other.

We are talking secondary school, the early years. In an old paperback belonging to my stepmother I was reading about this substance, spice, that allowed people to fold space, to travel between distant points without actually traveling anywhere. And then on the computer screens in the old PC lab in my school, these rows of monitors would occasionally switch from whatever they were doing - pages of text, maths programs - and you'd get, what? Mazes! Starfields! Words spinning in an abyss.

The folding of space - this is what computers do, right? Obviously they do it now with the internet, as you scroll over this formless universe of information where every point is instantaneously connected to every other point, this hypertext Oort cloud or nebula. But even before that, computers had this weird depth, this realm behind the screen, a place so clearly real that William Gibson coined a name for it: cyberspace. Back before internet connections, when computers were just operating systems and the programs they ran, they still did this - they still folded space and took you with them as they hopped across the gaps.

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Jean-Paul Software Screen Explosion - 1.0 Launch Trailer
The Jean-Paul Software Screen Explosion. Yes please!

And screensavers for me were where you got to see this most clearly. I am easily hypnotised, and have been since I was young. Car journeys, snow on the old TVs, I could stare at this stuff for hours, a slight frown developing, perhaps, but absolutely nothing in my brain. When we got our first home computer, which ran Pre-95 Windows, I remember being completely fascinated by the maze screensaver, which looked like a game, but was a game the computer played by itself, creating a space and then navigating it, and then creating another and starting over.

We were all fascinated by screensavers, all of us early PC kids. When you got access to a new machine - a friend's house, a local Comet - we were all right there in the settings. Which screensavers does it have? Does it have the maze? The scribbling pipes? Is there slowdown? Does it have the fabled flying toasters which an American relative told me about?

There were rumours about all these things - maybe you could enter the maze and control the screen, maybe every millionth flying toaster had a bagel in it. But these rumours emerged so readily because from the start there was something about screensavers that seemed to suggest a certain degree of mystery was inevitable. That word again: depth. The screen takes on depth, and you wonder what's beyond it, beneath it, inside it.

Oh, a lovely shimmering bait-ball.

I thought about all this after reading a lovely report on RPS about PCs, memory, and The Jean-Paul Software Screen Explosion, a collection of new screensavers that has just left Early Access on Steam. "How wonderful that our computer needed to dream as preventative medicine!" Testify! I've been hypnotised by the Screen Explosion ever since, and it's a joyous, mysterious, witty thing, a quick-change artist, one screensaver conjuring brutalist city layouts, another rendering streetcorners as buzzing pointillist swarms of lights, another taking you on a tour of the pylons of the world, seen from an endlessly cruising blacktop, colours changing, designs switching around as you travel without moving, the whole thing drawing me in until the pylons themselves start to look like mecha one minute and religious statues the next. Never thought that about pylons before. Never really looked at them.


I've missed this! I've missed screensavers, and their reminder of a time when computers were fun and personable, but also mysterious, quirky, the product of strange tinkering obsessions. I've missed the immersion of screensavers, the reminder that sometimes it's easier to involve yourself in a digital world if you don't actually have feet to move around or a crouch button to learn.

And this: the screensaver has had a short history, I imagine - at most they're slightly younger than I am. But they feel deeply linked to other liminal spaces, and not just the loading screens of old games or the glitches and outsider art of Teletext. They feel linked to book end-papers, the back designs of playing cards, the gloomy, fizzing air that hangs around the sitter in an oil painting portrait, that old eye test - I love it - with the hot air balloon hanging silently over the highway. These in-between places we don't notice enough, these spaces that allow your aimless imagination to rush in and fill them up. These spaces which, if they were to vanish, would leave the world much poorer and less glinting with mystery.