What is it like to be a Linotype?

In 1974, Thomas Nagel published an influential essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, in which he argued that an organism has conscious mental states if there is something that it is like to be that organism:

The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism (Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?“)

When we think and perceive, there is information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. This subjective aspect is experience, and it constitutes what David Chalmers calls the really hard problem of consciousness.

Perhaps anything complex enough to behave like a person would have experience. But that, if true, is a fact which cannot be discovered merely by analysing the concept of experience (Thomas Nagel)

Canal de Castilla + Press
Figure 1, Left: Floodgate #7 Canal de Castilla; Right: Wine Press, Cigales

By pure chance, last month I had a series of close encounters with several pieces of old machinery used in hydraulics, wineries and printing. In many cases those old machines stand still  in the very same scenarios where they once were used (Figure 1). You can hardly avoid a stir of uneasiness in front of those impressive fossils of ancient technology.

Linotypes
Figure 2, Linotypes; Left: Museum in Urueña; Right: EL PAIS Headquarters in Madrid

Among the different machines I came across, a couple of linotypes impressed me the most (Figure 2) due to their mechanical sophistication. The Linotype was the workhorse for the printing industry from the late 19th century to the 1960s and 70s. The name of the machine comes from the fact that it produces an entire line of metal type at once, hence a line-o’-type,  a significant improvement over the previous manual, letter-by-letter typesetting of Gutenberg’s moving type press.

When I was staring attentively at one of those old printing machines, as you would do with a person you are intending to understand, I suddenly thought of the incredibly large number of words and news, stories, novels that would have been assembled by that machine. As old scribes who carved in stone their stories, linotypes cast a good deal of 20th century history in lead slugs.

Maybe linotypes were like the native English speaker locked in Searle’s Chinese room, and they saw history pass by without knowing. But you cannot refrain from feeling that there might have been something like our own conscious experience glimmering behind their cold iron bodies.

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