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Idle Time Software: Screen Savers are Cinema
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Frequently Asked Questions

Screens are everywhere. Their increasing cheapness, portability and an evolutionary variety of sizes has spread them like a pandemic into our private and public environments. We poke at the tiny screens on our midget MP3 players and cell phones. We catch giant LED displays in our peripheral vision at major intersections. We view video loops of this season's runway in fancy boutiques. We march in time facing a phalanx of screens at the gym. Commercials, streaming stock prices, muted soap operas and daytime talkshows: we can be momentarily hypnotized and relaxed by the banal flickering images, or we can train ourselves to ignore them.

Computer displays are part of this landscape of screens, and when not in use they are often occupied by screen savers. A screen saver is a piece of software that activates when a computer is idle. Like the human appendix, the screen saver's original function, to prevent burned-in pixels, has been rendered unnecessary by the evolution of screen technology. Screen savers are a vestigial reminder of early computing whose utility has long since died out. Or has it?

Screen savers continue to thrive despite their apparent uselessness. The computer display is part of one's unique, personal environment, and screen savers are an individual, decorative choice–a moment of differentiation for a generic machine and the person using it.


Screen savers can be defined as cinema in its broadest sense–pictures that move. As cinematic media, screen savers have formal qualities that distinguish them from film and video:

1. Peripheral vision
Viewers don't sit down and concentrate on viewing a screen saver; instead it demands only intermittent attention.

2. Personal space
The "site" for a screen saver is a user's individual computer at work or home.

3. Extreme duration
Viewer-ship can extend into weeks or months.

4. Programmatic editing
The computer can generate the order and content of the screen saver, based on a set of rules.

5. Internet connectivity
Content can be drawn in from outside of the computer.


Early experimental film makers explored cinema in ways that can be applied to screen savers. Many of Stan Brakhage's abstract films could be equated with programmatic editing through a quality of controlled randomness. Structural films like "Arnulf Rainer" by Peter Kubelka resulted from setting up mathematical rules for editing. And several of Andy Warhol's films involved extreme duration–most notably "Empire"–a single view of the Empire State building lasting eight hours.

The realization that screen savers are cinematic leads to exciting epiphanies:

Why not infect this small part of the pandemic of screens with something relevant, exciting, and new?

Why not counter the hypnotism of flashing, meaningless video content with images that connect to one another over time?

Why not use these inherent formal qualities to create poetic content for screen savers?

Why not redefine the utility of screen savers as software, so that they provide meaning and beauty?

Why not make screen savers worth watching?


-- Cathy Davies, Idle Time Software, 2007


Click here to read/make comments on the manifesto.



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Above photos used under Creative Commons.

Photographers: HandsLive, inajeep, amatern, Robert Brook, altemark, Jacob Better, Seiya235, misocrazy, StewieD, | spoon |, MShades, diongillard, g-hat, travis-ocity, jezuez471, spcummings, Carol Esther, Michael (mx5tx)