November/December 2011
Chinnie Ding

Pipe Dreaming

What Can Screen Savers Tell Us About Our Wishes, Our Anxieties, and Our Obsessions?

Discussed: Yearnings Best Represented by Dirty Jobs and Etsy, Hallucinatory Napscapes, Journeys into the Milky Way, The Absence of Metaphysical Consolation, Populist Walkman Design, The Dangers of Phosphor Burn, Nostalgia for ICQ, The Lost Art of Water Witching, Screen-Saver Noir, Sandra Bullock as Hacker-Bachelorette
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

At a Pittsburgh gallery in 2006, artist Keny Marshall exhibited 3D Pipes, an elaborate, freestanding installation of aged metal plumbing. “Everybody’s got 3D Pipes on their computer,” said Marshall in an interview. “The only difference is this 3D Pipes took months to build and weighs three to four thousand pounds.” Oddly inconspicuous, mistakable for exposed utilities in the gallery’s warehouse-like space, this life-size, patina’d tribute to the PC’s workhorse screen saver of the 1990s and early 2000s spoke of our culture’s recent yearnings for industrially or intimately material work, Dirty Jobs adventurism or an Etsy sort of DIY. Yet perhaps more pervasively than any other 2D commonplace of its time, the virtual 3D Pipes—and the screen saver as a genre—had woven its own frenetic, filigreed dreamwork about work.

On when we’re off, screen savers are both hallucinatory napscapes and work-site facades. Though customizable, like icons and wallpapers, and comparable to other cubicle brighteners (potted plants, fluorescent stickies), they possess a distinct poetics. As boxed, watchable decor, where a fireplace or window might once have sufficed, they tend to emulate the mesmeric morphing and gelatinous luminosity of fish tanks, lava lamps, self-tilting wave tanks. (Cognate forms might include digital picture frames, dance-club visuals, the trompe l’oeil of Yule-log DVDs.) Whether ribbons of light that streak and fold, frantic zooms through a brick maze, or an inexorable volley into the Milky Way, the screen saver’s most insistent optical illusion is infinitude. Reaching beyond dead opaque surface and deadpan document glare—as if receding behind, sinking into the depths of true aliveness those occlude—its generous spaciousness seems to redeem work’s merely serial endlessness. The screen saver is comfort food for thought the way pop chaos theory is: it lets us believe we are more linked by the serendipities of a butterfly’s wings than by finance capitalism. As tasks await amid cascading windows or avalanching paper, the screen saver’s immersive depths unfurl the cosmic picture that keeps the job in perspective, outsourcing gripes to karma, converting tedium into trance. It acknowledges, and briefly gratifies, one’s drowsy desire for not-work. After Dark’s winged toasters gently flapping through black sky thus merge the wistful memory of breakfast with the anticipation of slumberland. Popular distributed-computing screen saver Electric Sheep, drawing on users’ networked machines to produce fractals resembling chrysanthemum monsters or viscous mandalas, styles itself a version of the pastoral: its server overseers are called “shepherds.”

3D Pipes, by contrast, delivers up no metaphysical consolation of worlds starrier or grassier than the workplace. There are no picturesque appeasements of shimmying fish, no vacation vistas. Its darkness is less deep space than the subterranean, maybe even hazardous space of sewage, asbestos, rust, fit for urban noir. (News reports tell us of bodies found in air-conditioning ducts, utility chases, other infrastructural cavities.) In part an udon-noodly cartoon X-ray of the computer’s own “brain” (recalling Ted Stevens’s construal of the internet as “a series of tubes”), it is an aggressively low-tech image: a pipe is more analog than analog. Harun Farocki has noted of early cinema that the “technical processes which were emerging at the time—chemistry and electricity—were almost inaccessible to visual understanding. The reality that was based on these methods was hardly ever characterized by visible movement. The cine-camera, however, has remained fixated on movement.” Likewise, however dynamically Intel Inside commercials may swoosh us into the delicate reticulations of microcircuitry, the computer’s operations are largely nonvisual, unelucidated by visibility. 3D Pipes may have been a last populist offering of toylike transparency through the computer’s screen to its innards, perhaps sharing a genealogy with the plastic see-through phones and Walkmen of the ’80s and ’90s, and the fruit-colored iMac G3. If technological complexity is analogous to a plumbing system, as the image suggests, the workstation, too, may be a portal to adventures in hard-hat toil and urban exploration.

Contending against this rugged romanticism is a different analogy. 3D Pipes can be strangely unnerving to watch. Growing like a geometric fern captured in time-lapse photography, extruding in every direction, it seems to threaten screen combustion. As in Tetris, a modular pileup exasperates and must be battled against—but here it is a pileup of work. Even when napping, the computer seems beset by iterative nightmares of a deadline. The pipes come to represent, rather than imaginarily suspend, the clogging of the task queue when one is away. When the screen has become as dense as Celtic knot-work, the entire image cracks and dissipates, as if burned out from its involute frenzy—before beginning again in the dark.

Only a hermetic game disrupts the regularity of pipe replication. Every so often, as a programmer in-joke, a teapot appears in place of a pipe fitting. Online, one finds screen-captures documenting the teapot’s existence (defying naysayers), and tutorials on locating it. Some have hunted for such whimsical features secreted into software (known as “Easter eggs”) with the zealotry of cryptozoologists, turning the screen saver, an accessory of work, into the object of hobby. Like tunnel diggers of yore who found slivers of bone or flint, screen-gazers could also feel like discoverers. No amount of break-room drip-coffee could quite approach the comforting domesticity of this roundly stout, spouted little object.[1] A sigil of home-brewed coziness amid a dirty-jobs work-site, elusive and prize-like even in these mirage environs, the teapot reveals the ghost in the machine to be nothing other than nostalgia.

Screen savers were invented in the early ’80s to do the material work of protracting monitor lifespan. As LCD screens soon made cathode rays and phosphor burn obsolete concerns, the jobless screen saver itself became an ornamental relic, as eligible for nostalgia as silvery, galactic Netscape, ICQ’s fluorescent blossom, the beep and crackle of dial-up. When a character in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs declared in 1996 that “screensavers are the macramé of the ’90s,” this small lunge at witty historicization both likened digital work to handicraft and already presaged its quaint obsolescence. In the mid-’90s, then, Daniel Harris could still dub screen savers “bionic folk art,” but today, even as a medium for digital creativity, they can no longer compete with app art, palm-size play.[2] Updated versions of 3D Pipes with sleeker piping or candy-cane striping did little to renew the life of this individual specimen of a dying form. The teapot quest became as antiquarian as water witching.

Critics puzzle over the fact that in our desk-job culture the office novel remains such a thin genre.[3] Still fewer of those office novels register the screen saver. As the thing seen when no one’s there to see, the screen saver loses its potential prose-space both to what happens during work and to what happens off work. When it does appear, it is usually as a symptom of inactivity: someone is nudging the mouse to reactivate work, or is found by a coworker to be dozing. Alternatively, the screen saver itself is relatively static, such as the ticker-text mantra meaningfully set as a screen saver floating across the protagonist’s monitor in James Hynes’s 2004 novel Kings of Infinite Space, and which gives the novel its title. A screen saver in Ed Park’s 2008 novel Personal Days has “a platoon of Smurf-like creatures digging luminous tunnels that crisscrossed the black of the screen,” their productivity at once exemplary and pointless.[4] (The pipes of 3D Pipes are as industrious, but have no such workforce; they tunnel themselves through the darkness with the organic moto perpetuo of ideal cell regeneration. Real infrastructure, of course, does not stealthily, helplessly self-proliferate in this way. It comes into being with long-term planning and distributed labor, competitive contracts and corruptible treaties. Yet, taken for granted until disaster or malfunction, infrastructure, too, is subject to a strain of magical thinking about work: it keeps going even when we’ve stopped. Although frequently invoked as a grail form of job creation—the ever-beckoning “new New Deal”—infrastructure equally feeds a vision of functional idleness.)

The screen saver fares better in the mystery-novel genre, where it can serve as an index of a duration of absence, an infiltrator’s deliberate signature, a reminder for characters to tiptoe, lest some twitch “wake” the computer and leave a trace of intrusion, as well as a veil-like teaser of the possible revelations on-screen, precisely one twitch away. Hence passages such as:“A computer monitor had gone into screen-saver mode, indicating that Tanya had been away from it for at least a while. Resting by the feet of the office chair was a brown Gucci hobo bag. So the woman hadn’t left the store” (Antiques Roadkill, Barbara Allan).

Or: “That was odd; the computer was set to default to screen saver after five minutes. He reached down and touched the seat of his desk chair. Warm” (Murder Suicide, Keith Ablow).

Or: “The screen went dark for an instant, then the screensaver came on. But it wasn’t my usual golden fish swimming along a coral reef. It was Death” (Bloodstone, Gwen Hunter).

Or: “The two computers were still running. It appeared that the orange and blue screen-saver fishes were the only witnesses to the double homicide” (Murder at the Red Dog, John Herrmann).

Or: “I hit several keys to go into a menu that would show me my messages. But the menu did not come up, a screen saver did. It was a black background with cain in bright red letters that dripped as if they were bleeding” (Potter’s Field, Patricia Cornwell).

Or: “Mitch stared at his computer screen saver with its simulation of fast-moving stars. He imagined himself floating through space, dreaming he was someone other than Mitchum Beaulieu, the person responsible for another man’s death” (8 in the Box, Raffi Yessayan).

For all the password dialog boxes glimpsed in movies and TV dramas—proffering scenes of epiphanic decryption and thrillingly illicit access—it’s just as hard to think of an instance when the big screen made use of the screen saver’s own striver cinematic effects.[5] In the singular notable exception, from the 1995 film The Net, hacker-bachelorette Sandra Bullock powers on a fireplace screen saver on one of her many computers as she prepares for a cozy evening with pizza and chat-room, while purple blobs swim slowly on another monitor. That The Net’s entire plot had sputtered about that other fossilized computing object, the colorful floppy disk, decidedly dates these lone cameos.

Where the monitor doesn’t simply time-out to black, recent screen-saver usage seems to have reverted to crudity: RSS news feed, or single line of text, or sequence of snapshots from the home hard-disk’s always-dusty-looking photo gallery, drifting and expanding à la “the Ken Burns effect,” barely more animated than wallpaper.

The screen saver’s slow but certain death has freed it up for abstraction. When architect Elizabeth Diller spoke about the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston that she and partner Ricardo Scofidio designed—a radiant two-tiered box cantilevered over the city’s waterfront, opened in late 2006—she described one window’s placid, plasmic marine view as “the ultimate screen saver.” Around the same time, Russell Brand used the concept to spaz about a childhood idée fixe, “the advert for Coco Pops. Think about it all the time. ‘I’d rather have a bowl of Coco Pops.’ That’s in my head all the time. If I’m not thinking about something else, I think about that. That is the screensaver for my mind.” Soothing or obsessive, and never so imaginative as to require alert attention, such figurative screen savers, too, remain just out of reach.

In a 2007 New Yorker cartoon, a crystal ball displays two hand-linked figures on a sunny beach. “Sorry—that’s the screen saver,” apologizes the fortune-teller to her crestfallen customer. The anachronism is appreciable; even cobwebbed clairvoyance seems to have gone professional with an IT upgrade. Yet if the screen saver there felt comically out of place, it was not because it signified modernity, but because it was already an artifact of the past. Though a wish-fulfillment interface like any crystal ball, it was never interested in the future. First deferring a hardware failure (saving), then partitioning one world from another (screening)—while intervening with images of still other worlds altogether—the screen saver dramatized the absorptions of inertia. The passivity it plumbed was not exactly pleasurable, but often more compelling than the so-called activity of desktop work. Rather soulfully in its languor, the screen saver understood how little our dreams resemble the futures promised by the technologies it served—how unmagical the future looks to be.

  1. This particular teapot, the Utah Teapot, has a distinguished prehistory in computer graphics, as a smooth-contoured object presenting a challenge, then a model, for 3D realism.
  2. Jenny Holzer, Brian Eno, Paul Pfeiffer, and Nancy Davenport are just a few artists who have worked with screen savers. The format was also once the subject of an exhibition, Refresh: The Art of the Screensaver (cocurated by James Buckhouse and Merrill Falkenberg, Stanford University Cantor Arts Center, 2000). Although screen savers are available for smartphones, too, no smartphone ever seems to be left alone long enough to require one.
  3. See, for instance, James Parker, “The Great American (Office) Novel,” the Boston Phoenix, June 6, 2008; Judith Flanders, “Why Don’t Novels ‘Do’ Work?” the Guardian, March 30, 2009; John Lanchester, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” the Daily Telegraph, January 29, 2010; and Lee Ellis, “Then We Came to the Next Office Novel,” the New Yorker online, February 3, 2010. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King has munificently added to that genre’s collective page-count.
  4. Like today’s bathetic incarnations of, say, Stakhanovite miners in Soviet Ukraine.
  5. No screen saver is yet to be glimpsed, for instance, among the delightful screen shots at Access Main Computer File (accessmaincomputerfile.net), an archive of computer interfaces shown in cinema.

Chinnie Ding teaches at NYU Gallatin, and is completing a PhD in English at Harvard.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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