Color Story: “Terminal Green”
Maxwell Neely-Cohen Considers Fashion’s Obsession With The Most Cyberpunk Shade Of Emerald
The first time I locked my eyes onto a computer screen, that green stared back at me, shrouded by black, moving like an organism.
“Terminal green.” It flashes, but at a menacing pace. The slow blink of a cat instead of a spastic light explosion. It is dull despite its neon, cocooned by the black void which contains it. This is the color of a machine’s soul.
I see terminal green in the wireframe digital global logos of Omondi, the knits of Namacheko, the black and neon accented sneakers of Errolson Hugh. It haunts the graphics of motocross pants, throwback 90s skate graphics, rave, and sci-fi homages. The shade isn’t uniform, but that’s the whole point. It’s just a ghost. A suggestion. It’s as if our resolutions have increased, our screens have swelled, and though we’ve forgotten how to make it, we’re trying anyway.
Early computer monitors were just televisions and oscilloscopes, black and white boxes repurposed in laboratories, parts of dedicated terminals to access computers so large they took up rooms. They discovered that white phosphor didn’t render text very well onscreen. It was blurry. They tried green because it was the cheapest available phosphor. It worked. They used orange, yellow, and red, too, but I mostly remember the green.
On January 28th 2018, SZA’s performance at the Grammy’s featured a projection which started out with typical trippy 70s graphics, before subtly morphing into a full on computer terminal digital rain crawl. The color started as a light phosphor-esque jade, seeming to move to another color before shifting back, convincing you for a second you didn’t know what you were looking at. It was like SZA was singing from the palace of a cyberpunk Emerald City.
For the rest of this year I have kept seeing hints of terminal green’s acceleration, particularly in clothing.
Terminal green is for those of us who want to dress like a system behind a system. To access the framework underneath that which can be seen if you know where to look. The green and the black bring back memory we cannot access. A suggestion of an art, an artifice, which we have lost the ability to create.
In the 1980s and 1990s, terminal green screamed from the inner labels of countless electronic 12” singles and video game box art. Terminal fonts greeted you from t-shirts that also hosted smiley faces and alien heads. There were round radar screens. Missile trails. Floating matrix grids. I remember as an elementary schooler being obsessed with a t-shirt that hung in almost tatters on a shaggy twenty-something’s neck in a restaurant my parents had taken me to. I looked at it the whole meal, keeping the image in my head for years, a circle with lines and a quarter taken out, a word that started with an R.
When I was 16, I would see it again, realizing it was the logo of Aphex Twin’s side project label Rephlex Records. The image had floated in the virtual space of my head for a decade. That’s what terminal green can do.
In 1999, the release of The Matrix caused a version of mass-hysteria at my middle school. It spread, peer to peer, and soon there were arguments with teachers as to whether we were all living in a simulation with ambient electronica illegally blasting through the band room speakers. Within a week, every computer on school property had that green raining down its screen as a screensaver. The digital rain made so famous by The Matrix was an obvious homage to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, not that I knew that then. A series of letters and numbers, code crunching fast, whose previous shapes would loiter until the next symbol would appear. After terminal green had infiltrated every screensaver and t-shirt it could, it started to fade, which is precisely what it was supposed to do. I saw it less and less as the 21st century went from promised theory to actual practice. 9/11 shifted storytelling away from grand philosophical questions of the nature of existence in the digital age. Hackers got hired. Rave culture became EDM culture. Skateboarding became cool. Subculture won. Frat bros became tech bros. Cellphones, the invention that Neuromancer and Snow Crash and all those other famous cyberpunk novels thoroughly failed to predict, began their long ascent to defining our world more than cyberspace ever could. My first cellphone was a neon green Nokia with a black back. I wanted it to imitate terminal green. Within a couple years it was replaced, like all the rest, and forgotten. Terminal green isn’t really a color. It’s also not truly replicable of a CRT screen. The important component of terminal green is not the green itself, but the darkness around it. The dead pixels. The shroud that is asleep, that could in an instant, at the speed of light, also become green. The green does not have a specific shade. Terminal green can vary from an almost tennis ball electric yellow to a dark, almost foresty-verdant, that out of context, would look anything but synthetic. But given the right form, and the right background, there it is, suggesting a text that could hijack a bank.
A few months ago, I took a creative coding class from new media artist Matt Romein. When he opened his terminal application on his Mac to show me something, there was that green again, wrapped in darkness. The default terminal application colors are white background, black text.“Did you custom change your terminal colors?” I asked.“Of course,” he laughed. I immediately changed my terminal colors, picking black and green. I asked him if this was just fashion or something cool nerds did. Or if it was in reverence to earlier days.“Well sure, though it actually does make a difference,” Matt said.“It’s easier on the eyes after staring at it for so many hours. It isn’t even about the green. That color doesn’t totally matter. You have to make sure the background is black. That’s the key. It’s about the black. It’s easier to stare at something that’s surrounded by the void.”Maybe terminal green is coming back because the void is back. It does the work in the recent new school rave wear collections of Wasted Paris, the SS/19 catwalk shows of Junn J and Craig Green, the intricately layered threads of Issey Miyake, which are themselves the products of code and engineering. It populates the screens within our screens in Blade Runner 2049, Altered Carbon, and Westworld.
At Balenciaga’s recent 2019 Spring Summer Paris show, models walked down a digital tunnel constructed by Canadian artist Jon Rafman—the walls shifting from computer error messages to liquid matter. Terminal green was spotted. Encased in black, the color radiated. It persists, decades after the computer terminals that required it have become obsolete.
The metal and plastic corridors of New York City’s Penn Station are a cramped mess of exposed wires and decaying infrastructure. The station was so poorly designed compared to its cathedral-like predecessor that art historian Vincent Scully remarked "One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."But Penn Station is the most cyberpunk place in New York City. It’s dark except for its electronic light—a boondoggle of a weak government bowled over by corporate power, overwhelmed with a human mass trying to get anywhere else. To board trains in Penn Station, one waits and looks at a giant board showing departures, anticipating the instant the board updates to show you what track you will be on. The board used to be a beautiful mechanical thing of black and white but was recently replaced by blue digital screens. But still, even today, as soon as the track is posted, there’s a rush to that escalator, and an inevitable wait in line. For many years, you could cheat this system. There were original ancient CRT green monitors under certain departure screens on the lower level of the station. Meant for station employees, they could tell you the correct track minutes ahead of time and you could just walk down and be the first one on the train. They were the last place in the city where I could see authentic computer terminal green. A couple years ago, those monitors were pulled out of the walls. But while I know the screens are gone, the green is still there. The code is still in those walls, waiting to be seen.
Maxwell Neely-Cohen is a writer based in New York City. He is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom.
- Text: Maxwell Neely Cohen