April 2nd, 2010

Six Prototypes for a Screensaver: A Retroactive History, Part 2

By David Reinfurt

Three minutes of doing nothing, then everything goes black. In 1983, John Socha wrote the first screensaver software to preserve the image quality of computer displays. Published in Softtalk magazine in 1983 and named SCRNSAVE, the simple program turned the user’s screen to black after three minutes of inactivity (the time could be adjusted only by recompiling the program). Personal computers were becoming affordable and popular, but their high-contrast green phosphor cathode-ray screens were subject to burn-in, where light intensity in one part of the screen left behind a permanent mark. SCRNSAVE was designed to eliminate these ghost-images and preserve the computer’s screen, coining the term and introducing a new software genre along the way.

In his small book from 1964, The Shape of Time, Yale historian George Kubler offers a useful model for constructing a retroactive history of the screensaver. Kubler proposes a realignment of art history based not on chronological procession (with one work following, updating and replacing the previous), but rather multiply-streamed parallel progressions moving through a constellation of distinct formal problems. One work does not necessarily exist at a fixed point in time, but rather connects to one or more form classes that may also have jumbled chronologies. With this rearrangement, Kubler suggests that time moves not forward in a straight line, but intermittently and coincidentally in retreating and recursive loops — “more knot than arrow”. He continues, “The rest of time emerges only in signals relayed to us at this instant by innumerable stages and by unexpected bearers…”1

The result of collapsing two simultaneous views of an object at one time.

Prototype 4 : Model

In the liner notes for Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), Brian Eno lays out his strategy for an ambient music. He recounts being laid up in bed with a broken leg at his home when a visitor put a new record on the stereo for him to enjoy. She left with the volume of the stereo much too low, causing the music to merge with all of the other sounds in the room. Stranded in his bed and unable to adjust the volume, Eno began to enjoy the effect of such a quiet music and realized that music could be made as a serious background — a carefully considered ambience meant to be largely ignored.

Ten years later, in an interview with PC Magazine, Brian Eno picked up the thread of an ambient composition. To his interviewers’ dismay, he claimed that the only useful quality of computers is their potential as semi-automated compositional systems. He confronted the interviewer, stating that “the only interesting thing about computers is screensaver software.”2 Software used to move large chunks of data around (such as video editing, page layout or even word processing) were all wrong — the transformative power of software was its ability to create real-time models that automatically generate endless variations.

Together with programmer Peter Chilvers, Brian Eno recently produced a software application for the Apple iPhone that merges these these two strands. Bloom (2008) is a simple application which responds to the user’s touch to produce a specific tone and a corresponding graphic form. As the user continues to tap the screen, overlapping graphic circles and their related tones work together to create an evolving sonic-visual model. The entire composition loops back on itself based on a set delay while also constantly evolving with each pass into a new composition. Bloom may also be set to self-generate. Eno describes the software as “an endless music machine, a music box for the 21st century”.

Designer and artist Joseph Albers was exploring similar territory in his comprehensive series of works, Homage to the Square. Consisting of more than one thousand works (paintings, drawings, prints and tapestries) created over twenty-five years beginning in 1950 when he was appointed to the faculty of Yale School of Art, the series provided a model for exploring the ambient and perceptual relationships between colors. The compositions throughout the series are relentlessly similar and based on a mathematically constructed set of nesting squares. Using this template, Albers filled the squares with interacting colors, exploring the perceived difference between identically produced hues based on their immediate environment (the other colored squares in the composition.) Perhaps like Eno’s Bloom, Homage to the Square presents itself as a logically limitless series and inexhaustible model.

Joseph Albers produced the series Structural Constellations at about the same time, although the inventory is much smaller. In these works, a network of hard white lines on a black ground (typically etched acrylic) are used to create geometrically impossible figures. The resulting forms describe shapes that can’t be made in three dimensions, the result of collapsing two simultaneous views of an object at one time. Albers’ Structural Constellations model a fourth dimensional geometry where one figure has countless formations described in their evolution over time.

As a research scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1960s, A. Michael Noll began to explore the use of computer graphics to model fourth dimensional geometry. Noll pioneered the use of early computer graphics for purely aesthetic ends. In his short computer graphics film Rotating Four-Dimensional Hyperobject: Hypercube (1965), Noll floated two simultaneous slowly rotating figures composed of hard white lines on a black background together in the left and right halves of the frame. The film is designed to be viewed cross-eyed so that the two differently rotating forms merge into one stereographic image describing a fourth-dimensional hypercube. Marcel Duchamp had attempted a similar project with Man Ray in 1920 by filming his Rotative Demisphere machine with two simultaneous cameras to produce a stereographic film. Most of that film was spoiled in developing.

Al Gore woke up one morning wondering if it would be possible.

Prototype 5 : Whole System

A recent Opinion piece from the New York Times (“Scorched Earth” by Robert L. Park) eulogized the political death of what had been derisively called “Al Gore’s Screensaver.”3 Since his vice presidency, Gore actively advocated The Trius Project — a satellite to be put into orbit around the Earth on a geosynchronous path (at position Lagrange 1) which would send back live images of both the whole Earth and the full Sun. This project was intended to feed a series of real-time displays, installed as screensavers on computers in U.S. public schools. Al Gore woke up one morning wondering if it would be possible to beam a live continuous image of the full Earth back from space. And, would that image inspire people with the urgent need to care for our planet much as the 1972 Apollo 17 portrait of the whole Earth had crystallized the Ecology movement? According to NASA, this picture (better known as The Blue Marble) is the most widely distributed photograph in existence. The image offers a portrait of the Earth as a small, self-contained whole system floating alone in the infinite nothing of space.

Development of The Trius Project began in 1998 at a cost of only $100 million (1/1000th the cost of the International Space Station). This live portrait of the whole Earth, while showing nothing specific at any one moment, over time might both educate and garner support for alternative policies to reverse the course of global warming. Opponents in the Bush administration and in Congress finally were able to kill the project and belittle the idea — it was only a fancy screensaver, doing nothing.

A more recent screensaver actually does something. SETI@Home is a distributed computing project from University of California Berkeley which operates as a screensaver. SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life) uses spare processing time on a group of inter-networked computers, each running the screensaver software, to process radio telescope signals from the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico. Distributed or Grid Computing harnesses the extra power of a large group of computers to solve processing-intense problems by parsing out the job among a group of dispersed machines networked together to act as one.

In this case, the Arecibo radio telescope is constantly sending and receiving signals into deep space in an unending search for extra-terrestrial life. The resulting radio data is recorded on magnetic computer tape and flown by U.S. Mail to Berkeley. Here, the massive processing task of scanning the radio signals to identify possible patterns is broken up into pieces and the jobs are sent out to participating computers, each with the SETI@Home screensaver installed. When a particular computer is not being used, the screensaver is engaged and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life resumes.

Grid Computing, however, is not isolated to the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life. World Community Grid is currently using spare processing cycles on idle computers to study protein folding and AIDS diagnosis patterns. Perhaps this distributed logic is somehow germane to the screensaver form — it may or may not be surprising that the two programmers credited with the Flying Toasters screensaver (1989) went on to form Moveon.org, the distributed political action facility.

Perhaps there is something left to save.

Prototype 6 : Utility

As computer display technology rapidly improved, lower contrast displays and graphical interfaces appeared (such as Apple Macintosh, 1984), and screensaver programs became increasingly redundant. No longer required to preserve the image quality of the screen, they were re-employed for entertainment and marketing, leading to increasingly frivolous softwares such as those released by After Dark for the Macintosh. The screensaver function was not built into the operating system, so After Dark provided a third party software with modules for different effects, including Starry Night, Stained Glass and, of course, Flying Toasters — animated retro-styled toasters with wings moving across the deep black background of the screen in lock-step to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries — proudly pointless.

But then, compare Al Gore’s Screensaver to the recent killer application Google Earth and fundamental software ideologies become clear. Google Earth is a shockingly comprehensive global mapping program which synthesizes satellite images, maps and user commentary into one complete soft model of the Earth. Synthetically floating before you in the black deep space of the computer screen, the Google Earth (as opposed to Al Gore’s rather more tedious actual Earth) promises transportation to any place in the world, virtually, instantly.

A user types in Dayton, Zagreb or Seoul and is immediately propelled in a computer animated and admittedly exhilarating flight towards the selected destination. On arrival, the user may further zoom, turn off the roads, add comments, find the closest 7–11. This software is an instrument, meant to be used, written to bring you the whole world at your disposal inside the soft silicon comfort of your home computer (Where do you want to go today?™)

American designers Charles and Ray Eames’ film The Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe (1977) describes a similarly exhilarating flight. Beginning at a lakeside picnic in Chicago, the camera travels one power of ten meters farther each shot from the previous before reaching the ends of the known universe. At this point, the camera returns to Earth in a sped-up sequence. This animated film produced together with IBM manages to convey the abstract mathematical concept of exponential growth in a direct and engaging form.

In 1957, the Eames Office produced a less directly useful project together with the Aluminum Company of America. Called the Solar Do Nothing Machine, the compact arrangement of brightly colored aluminum pinwheels, geared and spinning parts was powered entirely by an integral solar power cell. When the sun was shining, electricity was produced and the Solar Do Nothing Machine cranked up. The result was a kinetic composition of spinning and moving graphics — a complex assembly, doing nothing. A film of the same name produced by the Eames Office documents the machine.

At about the same time, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely was producing his monumentally-scaled, self-annihilating sculpture Homage to New York at the Museum of Modern Art. Staged alongside a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome in the sculpture garden, Tinguely’s machine was composed of an intricately connected set of the artist’s meta-matic machines and other moving parts of various scales and designs.

Homage to New York was designed to destroy itself the first time it was run, a fate it met on March 17, 1960. The artist described his work as “a machine that has rejected itself and become humor and poetry…whereas in a purely technocratic society the machine must always be a functional object.”4

Given the most commonly used criteria of utility for software, it’s not surprising that the screensaver is a debased form. It does nothing, it says nothing and it takes you nowhere. Instead it offers a quiet, even ambient portrait of a system — a simple image, a complex algorithm and an ever-changing picture of their interaction. Still there may be something to doing nothing. The computer, Alan Turing’s universal machine tirelessly capable of emulating the behavior of any other tool, is finally given a rest. After three minutes of nothing, the screensaver kicks in and the software produces the silently reconfiguring image of a system falling into and out of phase, automatically generating a fleeting picture of interference and coordination on your computer screen. Perhaps there is something left to save.

Six prototype softwares together with this text comprise a retroactive history of the screensaver. All screensavers are available for sale online at www.o-r-g.com/O-R-G

O-R-G designs, makes and sells small, specific softwares.

Six Prototypes for a Screensaver was commissioned for “Quick, Quick, Slow: Word, Image and Time”. Curated by Emily King, this exhibition is a co-production between Museu Colecção Berardo and ExperimentaDesign Lisboa 2009, 10 September – 29 November.

Text and software © 2009, David Reinfurt

1. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
2. Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).
3. Robert L. Park, “Scorched Earth”, New York Times, January 15, 2006, Op-ed section.
4. Ibid. 2