After Dark: Where have the screensavers gone?

September 23, 2012 - connectivity / cyberculture / emergence / experience / information technology / internet / operating system / post-desktop / psychedelics / rabbit hole / reality screen

I got my first personal computer in 1994. I had just started as a freshman at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon (Steve Jobs’ alma mater) and the school was an all Mac campus as part of the Apple Consortium. My roommate and everyone else I knew in our dorm had purchased new Macs to start our tenure as Reedies off on the right foot. Mine was a Performa (PowerPC Mac) 6300.

After setting up the computer and plugging it in to the first ethernet port I’d ever seen, I spent a good deal of time setting up web sites, chatting online, playing MMORPGs and collecting, and trying out screensavers.

The appeal of the screensaver was captured so well in the name of one of the most popular Mac screensaver software packages – “After Dark” by Berkeley Systems. After the lights went down, our computers would sit alone in the dark dorm rooms producing wondrous images, kaleidoscopes of color, cities made of stars, and flying toasters…

Berkeley’s After Dark software allowed the use of third-party modules, and hundreds were created. They all had one thing in common, as explained by one of the engineers on the project, Patrick Beard, they were meant to:

…create a darker environment for a color CRT in order to help preserve the phosphors.

We’d all seen the effects of images burnt into screens, and we were actually trying to design something with real utility. We never imagined it would define a new category for entertainment software.

Beyond entertainment, they became costume, fashion, accessory, visual aids for sensory experiences the likes of which college students tend to have… and more. And as I mentioned there were hundreds of modules available for After Dark, and that was just one screensaver software platform, there were many others.

They have a long history in computing, and perhaps they first appeared in in fiction. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein describes a screensaver on a television of the future:

They went to the living room; Jill sat at his feet and they applied themselves to martinis. Opposite his chair was a stereovision tank disguised as an aquarium; he switched it on, guppies and tetras gave way to the face of the well-known winchell Augustus Greaves.

So, where have the screensavers gone? We all know the standard versions that come with OS X and Windows, and there are packages of the classics for Linux. But a search today on Apple’s App Store reveals a withering selection:

Screen Shot 2012-09-20 at 4.47.57 PM

I don’t know if this is a matter of lack of interest from developers in creating innovative, clever or interesting screensavers, or just an area where developers who make interesting screensavers don’t care to participate in Apple’s closed marketplace model. When I’ve had an occasion to choose a screensaver for computer labs, I’ve used two excellent screensavers: Electric Sheep and BOINC.

Electric Sheep

Electric Sheep, a reference to the Phillip K. Dick short-story which was the basis of the film Blade Runner, is described by the creators as:

a collaborative abstract artwork . . . run by thousands of people all over the world. . . When these computers “sleep”, the Electric Sheep comes on and the computers communicate with each other by the internet to share the work of creating morphing abstract animations known as “sheep”.

The question asked by the title of the PKD story is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” This artwork allows your computer to work with others to imagine what these “electric sheep” might look like.

SETI@home Screenshot

BOINC is a screensaver that will display graphic representations of tasks being run on your computer for volunteer distributed computing projects, such as SETI@home and Folding@home, and many others (see a full list here) which use your home computer to help solve problems related to the search for intelligent life in the universe, Malaria, mathematics, cryptography, earth sciences and more.

Like the PKD question about electric sheep, I often think of screensavers as computers dreaming – and of those I know, Electric Sheep is the most like allowing your computer to dream. But what about screensavers that are just beautiful, funny, odd or inspiring? What does it say about the way we use computers today vs. the 90s, that we no longer seem to have a place for a vibrant screensaver developer community. There are some available, but to be blunt, they’re mostly just pretty ugly.

One exception is certainly Polar Clock, an innovative and customizable clock that uses motion and color to count-up the passage of time. But I’ve been hard pressed to find others, are they out there? What are you favorite screensavers? Are there beautiful ones, crazy ones? works of digital art that I’ve just missed?

To close, here’s a collection of 281 After Dark modules edited together with musical accompaniment, a bit of cyber-archaeology: