"This is Your Brain on Screen Savers"

by James L. Wright Jr.

I should say up front that I'm not opposed to the idea of screen savers. Screen savers perform the useful task of preventing screen burn-in. (Have you ever seen the ghosts on old ATM machine screens?) They even provide password protection so your evil co-workers can't install the latest practical joke every time you take a lunch break.

But, somewhere along the line, something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Earlier this year, I took a two-week cruise. The time off did me good, and I returned Monday morning with a decent tan and 10 much-needed extra pounds. My wife said I almost looked human again. My mood was uncharacteristically positive, though my therapist wouldn't classify it as "normal" just yet.

As I passed the receptionist's desk, I heard noises I'd never noticed before. I had a hard time placing the sounds, which seemed somehow out of place in a big-city accounting firm.

"Helen?" I asked. "Do you hear something?"

"Mmm-hmmm. It's my computer." Helen was doing the weekly filing. Her computer lay dormant.

"Your ... computer? Are you sure? It sounds like crickets."

"That's my new screen saver. They upgraded the systems last week, and we all got to choose a screen saver. I picked Soundscapes."

There was nothing on the screen, but every few seconds the computer would chirp. I also heard owls and ... monkeys, I think. I stared at the system in disbelief. This was just plain wrong.

"The sounds really relax me; they make me think I'm camping," Helen said distractedly.

"You shouldn't BE camping. You should be typing." Actually, I didn't care what she was doing as long as her computer wasn't doing anything while she wasn't touching it. I remembered those sci-fi movies with the self-aware computers; give computers enough time to think things through, and they'll trash your credit rating or blow up the earth or throw your best friend out an airlock. I accidentally bumped her desk as I turned to walk away.

"I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that."

I yelped; it knew what I was thinking! It even used that movie computer voice I'd been thinking about!

"Take it easy, Dave!" Helen laughed. "That's just the screen saver again. I got the HAL voice from Stewart." She clicked her mouse, and the crickets started back up. She returned to her filing. I backed away slowly.

Suddenly I heard laughter. I noticed half the office staff milling around Ralph's desk, obviously amused as they stared at something on his computer. I marched over.

"What's going on?" I demanded.

"New screen saver, Dave," Ralph said between chuckles. "It pops up jokes every few seconds. They're a scream. Wanna see?"

"No thanks," I mumbled as I headed back to my office.

The desks, most of them empty, were psychedelic nightmares of sight and sound: symphonies, Mickey Mouse, Captain Kirk, video game bleeps and boinks and bloops and blasts. The screens I passed by were filled with flying food, melting text, swimsuit models, flying toasters and dancing disco pigs in leisure suits. I became edgier with each step. Our once quiet accounting firm now sounded like the World's Fair.

Stewart's desk was emanating a throbbing, rhythmic pulse. Despite myself, I went over to look at it. That stupid pink bunny was marching across our annual report, pounding his drum and staring blankly at me through those sunglasses. I wanted to scream. In my absence, my co-workers had been invaded by pod people. The computers were all active, but none were being used to get any actual work done.

As I walked into my own office, I heard the loud report of automatic gunfire--not uncommon in this city, but louder than what I was used to. I threw myself to the floor and screamed, and the staff rushed towards me.

"Get down!" I shouted. "We're being shot at!"

"Hasta la vista, baby!" The voice was cold, but somehow familiar. It was coming from behind my desk. Warily, I looked at my computer--and saw Arnold staring at me with cold menace.

Ralph started laughing. "I guess I should have told you. While you were out, I installed the Terminator screen saver for you. Pretty cool, eh?"

"I'll be back," my computer intoned menacingly.

"The hell you will," I muttered.

I was ready for another vacation.

From WordPerfect the Magazine, March 1995 issue, p. 78.
Copyright © 1995 WordPerfect Publishing Inc.
Last Updated: April 9, 1996

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