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This essay tracks the digital afterlives of etaoin shrdlu, typographic error turned textual agent. A media effect of Linotypes, this phrase was meant to notify editors that their compositors’ fingers had slipped during transcription and a hot-metal line needed to be pulled. It was an internal memo, passed around the printshop — and it is now a recurring text string in digital archives of newspaper pages, where the phrase’s accidental inclusion in printed matter has been newly reset by automatic transcription processes. After examining the place of Linotypes in a long history of machine reading, I argue that the presence of this machine’s error signal in digital corpora presents an opportunity to consider the extent to which automatic transcription works from an interpretive disposition.
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