Anonymous Landscapes

The default images on device screens frame the world itself as generic content

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The bucolic composition of the image couldn’t be any simpler: In the middle of the frame, a smooth-sloped hill meets a blue sky studded with clouds, creating two zones of color. The details — a highlight on the hill, visible blades of grass — are less integral than the colors, blue impossibly royal and green a glaring kelly, more saturated than would seem naturally possible, yet Charles O’Rear, the photographer who took it, claims he did no touching up. This was California, and they say it’s always beautiful.

After Microsoft, a video work by the artists Goldin+Senneby, documents the image’s history. The photograph was taken in 1996 alongside California state route 12, in a viticultural area called Los Carneros (the sheep) in Sonoma County. The land, usually populated with vines, was then undergoing a multi-year recovery from a phylloxera infestation. By the time Microsoft purchased the rights to the image for Windows XP in 2000 and retitled it Bliss, the vineyard was restored and the landscape as O’Rear saw it had been replaced by dense rows of grapes. The distinct bright grass that made Bliss a branding asset — Microsoft made the image the default desktop background for its Windows XP operating system — was actually ground cover, healing the soil for the grapes typically planted there. From the first day it illuminated our screens, Bliss was a myth.

Across the faces of our digital devices, landscapes are passively consumed daily, quietly feeding collective imaginaries of possibility and prosperity

All landscape images play into fantasy to some extent, highlighting a rift between lived and perceived space. Geographer Doreen Massey once suggested that “maybe places do not lend themselves to having lines drawn around them,” and it’s no different when they’re on our screens: Erasing time, topography, and narrative, landscape photography popularizes a view of space as static and unmarred, disguising the realities of environmental depredation, economic enclosure, and political contestation. These idealized and abstracted renderings of place are often chosen to decorate the background of urban lives, however removed from the so-called natural world. Across the faces of our digital devices, landscapes are passively consumed daily, quietly feeding collective imaginaries of possibility and prosperity.

Despite the highly customizable nature of devices, they still have default images, toeing the line between generic and iconic. My laptop still has its default background: A view of Lone Pine Peak, in the Alabama Hills in California, that came with any 2017 Apple computer running OS X Sierra. For years, I did not think anything particularly about this image — it was just there, glowing and mountainous. I looked up its location only recently, when I found myself thinking about the many representations of nature embedded in my domestic environment. I’m surrounded by places I don’t know: the unidentified vistas coded into my Firestick’s sleep mode, the shoreline on my iPhone lock screen, the ocean sounds flowing from a small white noise box. As I sat isolated by the pandemic, my spatial reality cropped down to apartment size, the beautiful frontiers behind the endless scroll began to nag. Apparently dislocated from history and ecology, these anonymous places are currently off-limits to me and, given the steady procession of environmental disasters unfolding in the world, could very well be up in flames. At least knowing where they are, that they are, felt necessary.

When the screen is the primary portal to anywhere outside the home, anonymous landscape images are a reminder of how our technologies efface time and space. The scenes in our backdrop images can become mythical nonplaces, evoking an inaccessible reality that we’re barred from. A comedic piece by Dima Kronfeld suggests the ambivalent attachments that can build up to these everyday backdrops: “Why I Want My Ashes Scattered on the Default Mac Background Mountain.”

But some experience the abstract unreality of these landscapes as a challenge to take in the views in person, to bridge the screen with real life. In 2019, a YouTuber named Andrew Levitt attempted to re-photograph all the scenes displayed in Apple defaults since the company began naming its operating systems after California landmarks. A video documents his quest through the Mojave Desert to the mountains of Yosemite, location-scouting for viewpoints many of us have looked at passively for years. Many have made pilgrimages to the site of Bliss too, only to find a vineyard and a bustling highway instead of Microsoft’s classic green hill. Grant Marek, a recent visitor, notes the surprising experience of encountering a very real roadside scene, complete with litter and roaring traffic.

Lacking any clear messaging, default backgrounds convey a sense of inevitability about the kinds of pictures that other people want to experience

On earlier computers, default images were often screen savers, cyclically displayed to prevent burn-in on older monitors. These were not typically realistic landscapes, but animated and often otherworldly depictions of fantastic spaces and objects rendered through the pixelated, almost gimmicky visual language of what software was then capable of. These screen savers served up visual representations of distraction, as if the machine were daydreaming along with you. Now the default images on screens often function as backgrounds. They perform a different, more paradoxical function: ornament meant mostly to be ignored. They must deliver ambience and decoration without producing distraction, compelling enough not to register as annoyingly dull. This ambiguous purpose aligns them with advertising images, which are also deliberately hard to pin down, evoking vague or contradictory associations that are meant to work subtly on us, shaping our perspective without making us feel coerced.

Lacking any clear messaging, default backgrounds embed themselves into our peripheral vision, conveying a sense of inevitability about the kinds of pictures that other people must want to experience — mountains, sunshine, beaches. They evoke a collective appeal, a well-being in ordinary belonging, that transfers to the device itself. Generic, studiedly inoffensive, and verging on therapeutic, display images no longer save our screens but our brand loyalty.

The ubiquity of the landscape image has roots in aesthetic and evolutionary theories about the effect of natural scenes on human health and emotion. The idea of a quintessential human yearning for nature runs through countless self-help articles claiming the inherent benefits of images of water, trees, or what have you.

In recent years, prospect-refuge theory, a staple concept in landscape architecture, has been used to support arguments for the health benefits of on-screen nature imagery. Developed in 1975 by Jay Appleton, prospect-refuge theory argues that human preferences for particular spatial arrangements are grounded in our purportedly biological, survivalist tendencies to seek out prospects (information and opportunities) and refuges (shelters and hiding places). The archetypal prospect view shows a vista seen from a high vantage point, offering the viewer a sense of control in the clear grasp of the surrounding environment. An enclosure or barrier, like the edge of a wood, satisfies a desire for refuge. Many landscape images include both.

In some ways, this theory reworks classic aesthetic theories of the “sublime” and the “beautiful,” like that of Edmund Burke. Sublime landscapes invoked the terrors of the natural world, inspiring a version of awe steeped in adrenaline and fear: “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” By contrast, “beautiful” landscapes conveyed a refined smoothness, prompting not awe or terror but pleasure and delight. According to Appleton, viewing a landscape from afar allows one to bask in an expanse while enjoying a simultaneous sense of detachment, a knowledge that one is free from harm: the sublime contained in the beautiful.

An enclosure or barrier, like the edge of a wood, satisfies a desire for refuge. Many landscape images include both

Framing the imaged scene as an outside force for humans to reckon with or a generic good available for human benefit, such readings of nature — as raw material for human technicity— transfer to any object graced by a landscape image: Default landscapes offer a sense of metaphorical mastery to the users of their machines, implying command over work and grasp on an unfathomable online terrain that is otherwise impossible to survey. The domesticated sublimity of OS X Sierra’s mountain view brings the epic into the everyday, suggesting the trials and challenges I must overcome and the heights I might reach with their product. Hardly meant to impose the feeling of reverent helplessness, as Burke described the sublime, it shares a faint sense of transcendence instead.

With the centrality of devices in our lives, the screen presents itself more insistently as an efficient portal to what the world has to offer, while masking the pervasive surveillance environment users are likely inhabiting. Default images may then signal a pause, in their generic appeal, from the unwelcome personalization and algorithmic control that occurs on all our activated screens. While virtually every service aggressively recommends things, depersonalized landscapes on sleep mode suggest a respite: a serene viewpoint for beholding the outside world, bereft of the stressors of daily life.

Last year, when the fires in California were going strong, images of Golden Gate glowed orange, like something a heavy-handed photo editor might try to achieve to enhance the fingermark of God. I found a spitting image on wallpapersafari.com, which also looked like the pigments in an 18th-century depiction of an exploding Mount Vesuvius. The fearsome sublime — both emulated and diffused by hyper-saturated stock images — shows through, with smoke particles scattering light to create dramatic color.

Months of Zoom screen-sharing has made Apple’s generic views of California grandeur feel like an inside joke

Devastating California wildfires demonstrate the illusions of human mastery over the environment. Fire suppression techniques have proved insufficient and dangerous, while indigenous burning practices, born from steadfast beliefs in ecological reciprocity, have been criminalized to the detriment of our ecosystems. While we might hope to contain sublime disasters, ongoing havoc threatens to define our default views of the world, unless impulses to achieve dominance are radically re-evaluated. The understanding of nature as separate from human life permeates visual culture, from Burke’s sublime to the most subtle atmospheric visuals on our screens. It’s so deeply entrenched that landscape images almost always perpetuate destructive dualisms, using fantasy to avert attention from environmental realities, or framing them with such aestheticizing magnitude that they stand only to overwhelm. T.J. Demos writes of the problem with images in face of ecological catastrophe: “They are a salvage paradigm, compensatory, fetishistic, taxidermical, a last-ditch effort to deny the undeniable, to restore hope in hopelessness.” Hyperreal disaster images are becoming mundane, as socially driven climate crisis and species extinction continue.

Months of screen-sharing over Zoom has revealed that a number of my colleagues and friends also see Apple’s views of California grandeur every day. More than an exhibit of digital wellness or willing decoration, the repetition of the same generic view feels like an inside joke. Immersed in a culture of personal branding through customization, maybe we are just tired of showing enthusiasm through devices. The sheen has worn off since our earlier years; now they are neither sublime nor beautiful. They are tools to be taken as they are. Still, I wonder, what would things look like if our landscape images embraced ecological thinking, showing mutuality instead of dualism? What if we defaulted to visualize real relationships with land, or real relationships with each other?

A constant hunger for change of scenery feeds the nonspecific hope that things could be different, or better, in the future. This is what display images play into and what pandemic closure has denied. Even with an awareness of deceptive dreamscapes, I still yearn for new places. A friend recently shared Window Swap, a crowd-sourced website that shows views from other peoples’ windows around the globe. Some are beautiful, others utterly ordinary or even dull. These homemade digital vistas, still different than my own little corner of the world, show a boundedness and boundlessness all at once.

Unlike a commodified landscape image, these views are framed by interior walls, bringing the outside in and attention to the fact of their capturing. They evoke not passive observation but regular onlooking by situated stakeholders, who are also spending their days in front of a screen and a window. The view through a window frame, unassuming as it may be, take on more affective potency when counterpoised with the screen. Window Swap lightens cabin fever without serving fantasy, offering a demonstration of what technology once heralded: a hopeful sense of connection and the possibility of empathy. Where the anonymous landscapes that surround us are dreams or fears made ultravivid, prompting or demanding escapist reactions, these windows are living images denoting place and time. The exchange suggests a call for the collective attention and care necessary to ease the challenges of isolation and consider the world outside with appreciation and responsibility.

DM Loftis is a writer and cultural producer based in Philadelphia.