Columns Everyday Lies

Ghost in the machine

Does the printer really “experience” anything?

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I tried to print a document from my computer the other day and up popped a message in red: The printer has experienced an unexpected problem in printing your document! Then came a completely indecipherable message — indecipherable by me, that is, and I should imagine by the great majority of the human race — namely, Error 86c019_23b9 (I approximate). 

There are, I know, some people who believe in pan-psychism and I daresay that somewhere is to be found a society for the prevention of cruelty to pebbles. In the old days, when cars were much less reliable than they are now and would break down regularly, I would fleetingly believe that they did so maliciously, and I would give mine a good kick in the radiator grille to teach it a lesson. But of course I never really believed in the malice of my car: I just thought a good kick might bring together the ends of a loose connection. Televisions were the same: when they went on the blink, you gave them a good slap on the top. It often worked. 

No one believes that his printer experiences anything. And by whom was the problem experienced as unexpected? If by me, surely I did not need to be told that it was unexpected. By the manufacturer, perhaps? If the latter, was it the staff, the managers or the shareholders of the manufacturing company who were surprised by it? Surely expectation requires a mind that can expect, likewise an expectation that is not met. 

Why not just say, The printer failed to print your document? This might suggest a mechanical or other breakdown. The wording used, by contrast, suggests that I should feel sorry for my printer for having placed unreasonable demands on and expected too much of it. No wonder the printer is feeling stressed out. After a little rest, however, it worked again. Next time I’ll know better: I’ll just throw a Valium into its works.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover