[governance] (Fwd) The internet wrecking ball (review of Astra Taylor book)

Joly MacFie joly at punkcast.com
Mon Apr 20 03:42:31 EDT 2015

For readability i've done a quick search and replace on some of the more
dodgy characters in this piece. I used a regular text editor so Italics are
also gone.

On Mon, Apr 20, 2015 at 12:21 AM, parminder <parminder at itforchange.net>

>  From: Patrick Bond <pbond at mail.ngo.za>
> Date: Sat, Apr 18, 2015 at 12:06 AM
> Subject: [Debate-List] (Fwd) The internet wrecking ball (review of Astra
> Taylor book)
> To: DEBATE <debate-list at fahamu.org>
>  New Left Review 92, March-April 2015 <https://newleftreview.org/II/92> Emilie
> Literature on the social impact of the internet has always struggled to
> keep up with the breakneck pace set by its subject. First-generation
> thinking about the net took form in the early 1990s, when usage was rapidly
> expanding with the dissemination of early browsers; it grew out of a
> pre-existing thread of technology advocacy that ran back to 60s
> counter-cultural consumerism. [1] Wired magazine, founded in 1993, was its
> chief vehicle; key figures included tech-enthusiasts Stewart Brand, Kevin
> Kelly and Howard Reingold, with their 'patron saint' Marshall McLuhan. This
> euphoric perspective dominated throughout the 'new economy' boom: the
> internet was changing everything, and for the better, heralding a new age
> of freedom, democracy, self-expression and economic growth. Grateful Dead
> lyricist John Perry Barlow's 1996 'Declaration of the Independence of
> Cyberspace', delivered from Davos, set the tone: 'Governments of the
> Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from
> Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the
> past to leave us alone.' Pitted against this, there had long existed a
> minor current of critical left writing, also running back to at least the
> early 70s; this included 'left McLuhanite' figures such as The Nation's
> Neil Postman. More overtly political, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's
> classic 1995 essay, 'The Californian Ideology', skewered Wired in its early
> days, while on the 'Nettime' listserv and in the pages of Mute magazine,
> writers such as Geert Lovink attempted to forge a real 'net criticism'. But
> these voices were mostly confined to the dissident margins.
> With the 2000-01 dot.com crash there came something of a discursive
> shake-out. It was in the early post-crash years that Nicholas Carr's Does
> it Matter? (2004) was published, puncturing 'new economy' hype. But with
> the Greenspan bubble and massive state-intelligence funding after 9.11,
> American tech was soon on its feet again. Tim O'Reilly's coining of the
> 'Web 2.0' buzzword in 2004 captured the returning optimism. The blog craze,
> Wikipedia and the first wave of social media all came into play during
> these years, and it was now that the landscape of tech giants was
> consolidated: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft. The technology
> discourses of this phase echoed the developing shape of the Web: with
> ​ 'o
> pen source' (another O'Reilly buzzword) and Wikipedia, it was argued that
> undefined crowds could be superior producers of content and code than named
> (or paid) individuals.
> When a second, much deeper crisis erupted in 2008, American tech was one
> of the few sectors to remain relatively unscathed, already moving into new
> lines of production: smartphones, tablets, e-readers. The uptake of these
> devices brought a qualitative expansion of internet use, blurring the
> boundary between everyday life and a
> ​ '​
> cyberspace' that had hitherto been conceptualized as a separate sphere.
> Suddenly it was evident that all the talk of the internet's capacity to
> instigate far-reaching social change was no mere talk. It was in these
> years that a set of more pessimistic and critical voices started to come to
> the fore, worrying about the dangers of the Web's expanding use: Nicholas
> Carr's The Shallows (2010), Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget (2010),
> Sherry Turkle's Alone Together (2011), Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion
> (2011). Carr's book in particular became the key expression of a mounting
> anxiety, even before the Snowden revelations in June 2013 brought home some
> of the darker implications of these developments. But now that the internet
> was so plainly entangled in so much of everyday life, and so much of the
> structure of capitalist society, it was becoming increasingly meaningless
> to isolate a singular technological entity, 'the internet', as either
> simply good or bad. The main object of net criticism was increasingly
> coextensive with society itself, thus making a more social mode of critique
> plainly the most pertinent one.
> This is the context for Astra Taylor's The People's Platform: Taking Back
> Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Taylor presents herself as neither a
> 'cheerleader of progress at any cost' nor a 'prophet of doom', condemning
> change and lamenting what has been lost. She aims to provide a more nuanced
> mode of net criticism than either of these standard rhetorical poles. She
> is by no means the first to do so: Evgeny Morozov is another figure who
> would locate himself here, taking up a third rhetorical position that
> distinguishes itself against the other two and offering less
> techno-determinist, more socio-political modes of explanation. But if the
> occupants of this third position are right to place themselves here, it
> might be said that it is easy now - in the third decade of the Web's
> existence - to be right in this way. What matters is the detail of the
> diagnosis and what we can do.
> Taylor's ambition, as her subtitle suggests, is to make the case for a new
> cultural politics of the digital age. How Web 2.0 affects the production
> and distribution of culture touches her in a direct sense. She is a
> documentary filmmaker and editor of two books, one on philosophy, the other
> on the Occupy movement in the us. She has no parallel university job to
> shield her from the growing structural inequalities she describes; nor for
> the most part do the musicians, film-makers, photographers and
> investigative reporters whose stories she recounts, working at the coal
> face of a culture industry that has been transformed by the internet - but
> not in ways that Wired predicted. Taylor's personal background might make
> her seem an ideal candidate for Web enthusiasm. She has written in n+1
> magazine about her enlightened home-schooling by counter-cultural parents.
> The People's Platform opens with the story of how in 1991, the twilight of
> the pre-Web era, the 12-year-old Taylor brought out her own
> environmentalist magazine, copying it with the help of a friend's father
> who managed the local Kinko's and distributing it to bookstores and food
> co-ops around Athens, Georgia, in her parents' car. She notes how much
> easier it would have been to get her message out today, when 'any kid with
> a smartphone' has the potential to reach millions of readers with the push
> of a button. In 2011 Taylor helped produce five crowd-funded issues of the
> Zuccotti Park broadsheet, Occupy! Gazette, distributed free in print and
> online. This background is important; she is coming from a position of high
> expectations and dashed hopes, not sceptical resistance to technological
> change.
> The People's Platform looks at the implications of the digital age for
> cultural democracy in various sectors - music, film, news, advertising -
> and how battles over copyright, piracy and privacy laws have evolved.
> Taylor rightly situates the tech euphoria of the late 90s in the context of
> Greenspan's asset-price bubble, pointing out that deregulated
> venture-capital funds swelled from $12bn in 1996 to $106bn in 2000. Where
> tech-utopians hailed the political economy of the internet as 'a better
> form of socialism' (Wired's Kevin Kelly) or 'a vast experiment in anarchy'
> (Google's Eric Schmidt and the State Department's Jared Cohen), she shows
> how corporations dominate the new landscape: in 2013 Disney and
> TimeWarner's shares were up by 32 per cent, cbs's by 40 per cent and
> Comcast's by 57 per cent. The older tech and culture-industry corporations
> have 'partnered' with the new: at&t with Apple, Disney and Sony with
> Google. The major record labels have stakes in Spotify, as has Fox in Vice
> Media, while Condé Nast has bought up Reddit. In contrast to the multiple
> distribution grids that once purveyed telephony, tv, radio and film, nearly
> everything is now carried on cable or wireless 'unichannels', monopolized
> in the us by a handful of giants: at&t, Verizon, TimeWarner, Comcast.
> Their scale is matched by the newcomers. Google, which accounts for 25 per
> cent of North American consumer internet traffic, has swallowed up a
> hundred firms since 2010. With over a billion users, Facebook has enrolled
> more than a seventh of the world's population. A third of global internet
> users access the Amazon cloud on a daily basis. As Taylor pointedly notes,
> the main source of Facebook's and Google's profits is other firms'
> advertising expenditure, an annual $700bn in the us; but this in turn
> depends on the surplus extracted from workers who produce 'actual things'.
> The logic of advertising drives the tech giants' voracious appetite for our
> data. In 2012 Google announced it would be collating information from its
> multiple services - Gmail, maps, search, YouTube, etc. - to combine the
> 'knowledge person' (search queries, click-stream data), the 'social person'
> (our email and social media networks) and the 'embodied person' (our
> physical whereabouts, tracked by the phones in our pockets) into a single
> '3d profile', to which advertisers can buy access in real time. Facebook,
> which is now bundling users' offline purchases with their profiles, 'to
> make it easier for marketers to reach their customers', as Mark Zuckerberg
> put it, had a market value of $104 billion on the day of its ipo. Without
> our 'likes' and comments, our photos and tweets, our product ratings or
> restaurant reviews, these companies would be worth nothing.
> Online and offline are not separate worlds, Taylor insists; the internet
> in her account has a distinctly 'earthly' reality. Broken down into its
> three different layers - physical infrastructure (cables and routers),
> software (code, applications) and content - it turns into something more
> controllable, potentially vulnerable to harnessing. The current battle over
> 'net neutrality' in the us is a marker of this - a struggle over the
> dilution of regulation preventing cable companies and service providers
> from slowing traffic down to stifle competition, or charging extra fees to
> speed it up. A further question is whether the principle of equal access
> could be extended from wired broadband to wireless connections - not just
> mobile phones but cars, watches, fridges, clothes, as the
> internet-of-things looms ever closer.
> If the corporations have prospered in the digital age, what of the
> relationship between creative labour and technological innovation? For the
> tech-utopians, the Web would be a paradise of collaborative creativity,
> with art and knowledge produced for sheer pleasure. Richard Florida's Rise
> of the Creative Class (2002) hailed the advent of the 'information
> economy', in which workers already controlled the means of production, as
> these were inside their heads. The tension between Protestant work ethic
> and Bohemian creativity would be dissolved, as profit-seeking and
> pleasure-seeking, mainstream and alternative morphed together. In reality,
> Taylor notes, the ideology of creativity has become increasingly useful for
> a profit-gouging economy. In a cruel twist, the ethos of the autonomous
> creator - the trope of the impoverished but spiritually fulfilled artist -
> has been repurposed to justify low pay and job insecurity. The ideal worker
> matches the traditional profile of the creative virtuoso: inventive,
> adaptable, putting in long hours and expecting little compensation in
> return. 'Money shouldn't be an issue when you're employed at Apple',
> shopworkers are informed. Graduate students are encouraged to think of
> themselves as comparable to painters or actors, the better to prepare
> themselves for impoverishment when tenure-track jobs fail to materialize.
> In Henry James's 'The Lesson of the Master', a young writer listens with
> growing alarm to the future mapped out for him by his mentor, pursuing the
> path of total dedication to his art. No children, no material comforts, no
> marriage - all this would tarnish 'the gold' he has the capacity to create.
> He resists: 'The artist - the artist! Isn't he a man all the same?'
> Taylor's investigation of 'free culture' arrives at a similar, if
> gender-neutral, position. She recognizes that 'the fate of creative artists
> is to exist in two incommensurable realms of value, and be torn between
> them': on the one hand, cultural production involves 'the economic act of
> selling goods or labour'; on the other, it entails 'that elevated form of
> value we associate with art and culture'. What she shows is that, for
> cultural workers, conditions in the first realm have worsened quite
> drastically, while the promise of the digital era - a level playing field
> of universal, democratic access - turns out to offer scant compensation; to
> add one's shout to the digital cacophony doesn't create an intelligible
> debate. A songwriter tells Taylor that it takes 47,680 plays on Spotify to
> earn the royalties of the sale of one lp, while iTunes can take a cut of 30
> per cent or more. The 'free culture' internet ideology disguises sharply
> unequal social relations: the digital giants offer free apps, email and
> content as bait to hook an audience to sell to advertisers; struggling
> independent artists are supposed to provide their work on the same terms.
> Taylor ruefully describes the experience of discovering that her
> documentary film, Examined Life - interviews with philosophers, two years
> in the making - had been posted online by strangers before it had even
> opened in theatres. When she wrote to those responsible, explaining that
> she would like a few months to recover the film's costs before it went free
> online, she was told (with expletives) that philosophy belonged to
> everyone. 'I had stumbled into the copyright wars.' She has no doubt that
> existing us copyright law is indefensible. In 1978, authors' exclusive
> rights to their work were extended for seventy years after their death,
> making a mockery of the original principle of copyright as a reward or
> incentive for cultural production. Instead, she argues, it gave a handful
> of conglomerates an incentive 'not to create new things, but to buy up
> tremendous swathes of what already exists'. The People's Platform argues
> strongly for a reformed copyright system, in essence as a defence of
> labour, and calls for a relationship of 'mutual support' between 'those who
> make creative work and those who receive it'. Taylor quotes Diderot's
> splendid fulmination:
> What property can a man own if a work of the mind - the unique fruit of
> his upbringing, his studies, his evenings, his age, his researches, his
> observations; if his finest hours, the most beautiful moments of his life;
> if his own thoughts, the feelings of his heart, the most precious part of
> himself, that which does not perish, that which makes him immortal - does
> not belong to him?
> Contrary to tech-enthusiasts' hopes for new forms of creative
> collaboration, the majority of online cultural content is produced by
> commercial companies using conventional processes. The internet has
> steepened the 'power curve' of cultural commodities, Taylor notes, with a
> handful of bestsellers ever more dominant over a growing 'tail' of the
> barely read, seen or heard. Netflix, which occupies 40 per cent of us
> bandwidth most evenings, reports that the top 1 per cent of its inventory
> accounts for 30 per cent of film rentals; YouTube's ten most popular videos
> get 80 per cent of total plays. Taylor laments the hollowing of the middle
> strata - less conventional works that nevertheless resonate beyond a
> specialist niche.
> The 'missing middle' is particularly relevant when she turns from film and
> music to journalism. The news industry is another ravaged environment in
> the digital age, with local and rural papers in the us hit especially hard;
> the number of reporters covering state capitals halved between 2003 and
> 2009. Even in the booming Bay Area, the Oakland Tribune shrank from two
> hundred reporters in the 1990s to less than a dozen today. As Taylor points
> out, while you can now access the nyt, British Guardian and Canadian Globe
> & Mail with a single click, your home-town papers have likely shut down.
> Her defence of the profession is a classic one, based on the idea that
> journalists should act as democracy's watchdogs against ignorance and
> corruption, calling politicians to account and bringing events from around
> the world out of potential obscurity and onto front pages - paper or
> digital. In modern newsrooms, however, in-depth international reporting is
> all but extinct: by 2006, she writes, American media, both print and
> broadcast, supported a mere 141 foreign correspondents overseas. Budgets
> are channelled into developing digital editions and online magazines, like
> The Huffington Post; news aggregators such as Gawker or 'contagious media'
> sites like Buzzfeed proliferate. Yet the time-bomb hanging over foreign
> correspondents was ticking long before the Web. Here again, new problems
> are generally old problems with a different face: trends already evident in
> the 90s underwent a dizzying acceleration as the digital era took hold. The
> original newspaper model had used profits from print advertising to fund
> its most expensive but often least read international pages by bundling
> audiences together - crossword aficionados and business-page readers with
> sports and celebrity-gossip fans. Online, a newspaper's sections are split
> and audiences unbundled, allowing readers to go directly to the news they
> want without having to glance at - or pay for - anything else.
> aol's guidelines for the new-model Huffington Post suggest the orientation
> of the future: editors are to keep their eyes glued to social media and
> data streams to determine trending topics, pairing these with search-engine
> optimized titles - often barely literate, but no matter if they top results
> lists - and drawing on thousands of bloggers as well as staff writers to
> push out a non-stop stream of condensed, repurposed articles. Those
> determining the content of the magazine are already locked in a 'most
> popular' feedback loop. Meanwhile, the rapid-fire output of news agencies
> that run to a 'hamster wheel' tempo - wire-copy writers may be expected to
> churn out ten stories a day - is becoming the only source from
> on-the-ground reporters around the world. Agency journalists may be good
> reporters, but their remit is to stay faithful to the neutrality commitment
> of their employer and only say what someone else, usually in an official
> position, has said already.
> The ascendant model for news in the advertising-driven digital era is to
> offer us what we've read about before, whether this is the price of oil or
> the latest tennis results; major internet services shape content according
> to algorithms based on past behaviour. We can personalize the news,
> 'curate' and share content, but in the process, 'what we want winds up
> being suspiciously like what we've got already, more of the same - the
> cultural equivalent of a warm bath.' News aggregation is about 'capturing
> eyeballs'. As one young toiler in 'the salt mines of the aggregator'
> explains: 'I have made roughly 1,107 times more money linking to thinly
> sourced stories about Lindsay Lohan than I have reporting any original
> news.' Independent online news sites can be starved of funds. After the
> Baltimore Examiner shut down in 2009, journalists tried to set up a
> web-based in-depth reporting site, Investigative Voice, along the lines of
> Voice of San Diego, MinnPost or ProPublica. It seemed, Taylor writes, 'a
> shining example of what many hope our new-media future will be', combining
> ​ '​
> the best of old-school shoe-leather journalism' with the internet as 'a
> quick and affordable distribution platform'. The reporters pioneered
> 'episodic investigative journalism', posting and updating revelations of
> government and police department malpractice, inviting reader input. After
> barely a year, they were broke. Taylor's contact took a job with a local
> Fox affiliate, so he could see a doctor.
> The People's Platform ends with a manifesto - in itself a more ambitious
> move than those of most books on digital culture, even if Taylor's demands
> seem disappointingly limited after what has gone before. She shrinks from
> the thought of nationalization - there is no equivalent here to Evgeny
> Morozov's 'Socialize the data centres!' - and disparages the free-software
> movement pioneered by Richard Stallman and others as 'freedom to tinker'.
> Instead she calls for more regulation of the service providers and major
> platforms; improved broadband provision; introducing a kind of
> Glass'“Steagall of new media, to force a separation of content creation
> from communication and thus prevent a new round of vertical integration;
> levying a tax on the advertising industry; pressuring Silicon Valley to pay
> tax at higher rates; more public spending on the 'cultural commons', the
> arts and public broadcasting (the education system gets no mention). In the
> '˜copyright wars', she opts for reform rather than abolition or
> '˜copyleft'. More broadly, Taylor argues that the ideology of '˜free
> culture' promoted by Web enthusiasts has centred on distribution, obscuring
> and ultimately diminishing the people and social supports that underlie
> cultural production. She seeks to redress the balance by way of a more
> ˜ecological', long-term mentality, drawing on the politics of ethical
> consumption and '˜fair trade' to call for culture that is 'sustainable' and
> '˜fair', as opposed to '˜free'.
> In many ways, The People's Platform is strongest on the detail, nailing
> highly specific targets (such as the myth that e-readers are a boon to the
> environment; according to a New York Times report, one Kindle consumes the
> resources of four dozen books and has the carbon footprint of a hundred).
> Taylor provides a valuable and demystifying account of the current American
> cultural landscape. Strong on empirical documentation, the book is weaker
> on conceptualization or structural analysis. There is a sense that much of
> the material here remains on the surface. Though her stated aim is to
> uncover 'the socio-economic forces that shape technology and the internet',
> all we are given on this front by way of explanatory causes is a passing
> mention of shareholder value. Politically, Taylor situates herself as '˜a
> progressive' - the book abounds in phrases beginning '˜progressives like
> myself' - which would seem to refer to that section of American opinion
> located around the left of the Democrats, The Nation and Democracy Now!.
> She shares its strengths - a powerful sense of moral indignation and hatred
> of injustice - and weaknesses, not least a parochialism that can be blind
> to the world beyond America's borders and a failure to analyse the
> Democratic Party's functional role for Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
> The People's Platform never confronts the fact that the Obama
> Administration has not only presided over the continuing expansion of the
> global surveillance state but has been exceptionally cosy with the Valley
> elite. While Google, Facebook et al. have been enthusiastic backers of the
> Democrats, a revolving door has seen staff and ideas continue to pass
> between tech and intelligence 'communities'. There is surprisingly little
> in Taylor's book on the digital heroes who have incurred the Silicon
> President's wrath: Manning, Snowden, Swartz. Yet their actions have done
> more than most tomes of net criticism to reveal the power relations of the
> digitalized world. Similarly, Taylor's manifesto might have been stronger
> had she looked across the Rio Grande. That so much of the global
> infrastructure of the Web, both hardware and software, is owned by American
> corporations has different implications outside us borders. In pursuit of
> what Stallman has called '˜computational sovereignty', the Lula government
> in Brazil began funding free-software projects - 'free' in the sense of
> libre, rather than gratuit - over a decade ago. The Correa government in
> Ecuador has taken the same path. A more comparative, internationalist
> approach might also have shed greater light on what conditions allow online
> investigative journalism to succeed; in France, the subscription-based
> Médiapart has flourished since its foundation by former Le Monde editor
> Edwy Plenel in 2007, breaking some of the country's biggest stories of
> political corruption.
> While Taylor's dismissal of free software as 'freedom to tinker' captures
> something real about its prima facie narrowness as a political programme,
> she misses the peculiar way in which this very narrowness gives rise to
> significant implications when we broaden the frame and examine a more
> social picture. While the individual user may not be interested in
> tinkering with, for example, the Linux kernel, as opposed to simply using
> it, the fact that it can be tinkered with opens up a space of social agency
> that is not at all trivial. Since everyone can access all the code all the
> time, it is impossible for any entity, capital or state, to establish any
> definitive control over users on the basis of the code itself. And since
> the outcomes of this process are pooled, one does not have to be personally
> interested in 'tinkering' to benefit directly from this freedom. With
> non-free software one must simply trust whoever, or whichever organization,
> created it. With free software, this 'whoever' is socially open-ended, with
> responsibility ultimately lying with the community of users itself.
> While this issue of trust might have seemed narrowly geeky a few years
> ago, as our lives become increasingly mediated by software infrastructures,
> and especially post-Snowden, it is quite apparent that such things can have
> major political ramifications. For example, it is not unusual for non-free
> software to come with secret 'backdoors' that can enable third parties to
> collect information about users. Intelligence agencies can turn on the
> microphone or camera on your phone to find out what you're doing or saying.
> With free software, the problem is significantly reduced, since there is a
> world of users out there attentive to such risks, ready and able to fix
> them when they are found. These questions - and the ability to avoid
> surveillance or subtle forms of technological interference by third parties
> - have an obvious relevance for journalists, activists, committed
> intellectuals and cultural workers, the subjects at the heart of The
> People's Platform.
> It is apparently still quite possible to live mostly beyond the purview of
> Big Tech and the surveillance state, and a truly vast 'commons' exists that
> can support that independence. The use of non-tracking search engines such
> as DuckDuckGo, instead of Google, can significantly shorten the trail of
> one's data footprints, as can a security-conscious email provider like
> Kolab (especially when combined with encryption), or a free activist one
> such as Riseup or Inventati/Autistici, rather than an ad-based service such
> as Gmail, which feeds on its ability to analyse your inbox. A federated
> social network such as Diaspora can replace Facebook; instead of Google's
> Android, smartphones and tablets can run the free-software Replicant
> operating system; Owncloud can provide the same functionality as Dropbox.
> The list could be expanded: prism-break.org, run by one Peng Zhong and
> based, perhaps only virtually, in northern France, offers a wealth of
> suggestions.
> The major obstacles to a large-scale exodus in that direction are, first,
> the self-reinforcing tendency towards consolidation, which makes it very
> easy to join, for example, Facebook, and quite hard to leave; and second,
> the straightforward temptation of corporate services that are free and
> easily accessible, while the alternatives tend to cost time or money, or
> both. Still, a cultural politics of the internet should be grateful for the
> work of free-software programmers and would do well to draw upon the
> possibilities it opens up. Since WikiLeaks and the Snowden revelations,
> there have been signs of an emerging alliance between hackers and
> journalists, as evidenced by The Intercept, the online platform launched by
> Glenn Greewald, Jeremy Scahill and documentary-maker Laura Poitras. Taylor
> is surely right that we need to address the underlying socio-economic
> forces that shape digital technologies. Yet against such powerful foes, an
> effective strategy will aim to open multiple fronts; real advances, however
> small, should be welcomed. The twist to James's story was that the Master,
> having dispatched his epigone to Switzerland in the name of art, promptly
> married the young man's beloved. The lesson, in other words, was entirely
> worldly. Today's young cultural workers may have learned that already.
> [1] Astra Taylor, The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in
> the Digital Age, Fourth Estate: London 2014, £12.99, paperback 277 pp, 978
> 0 0 0752 5591
Joly MacFie  218 565 9365 Skype:punkcast
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