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‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

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Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

Detaching

— From a variety of things. Including soon, perhaps, Facebook. Bye fly, FB!

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

The Human

Facebook, texts and e-mail optional. Actual conversation recommended.

Greeting [Hug, handshake, secret society signal]

Them: Hey [Bro, Buddy, Honey, My Man, Sweetheart, Sweetcheeks, Hot Stuff or actual name if recalled]. How are you?

You: Meh.

Them: So, my [wife, significant other, family, coffee klatch, coven, paramilitary group, Illuminati subcommittee, tribe, friends, colleagues etc.] and I are headed to [the shore, our camp, Chautauqua, music festival, etc.] next week/weekend/August. It’s a pretty low key interesting crowd. Would like like to come along? You’d be welcome.

You: That sounds nice.

Them: It comes out to about $200-$300 a person. Do you mind sleeping on a sofa?’

You: Sure, I can swing that. No problem.

Them: There’s a hammock out back and canoe/kayak rental and cycling nearby. We’ll cook most of our meals. We might go out to eat once or twice.

Me: Sounds nice. I can bring some groceries and a bottle of wine to share. I can help cook and clean up. I would enjoy that.

Them: We may have some plans. You’re welcome to join us for some or just chill on your own. I know it’s been a rough month/year/life/millenium.

You: Sounds like what I need. I may do some writing if I feel like it, and bring my harmonicas.

Them: Um, yeah. That’d be good to do while we’re out. We’re leaving [date]. We’ll carpool split gas/taking our own cars. Coming back [date].

You: Sounds good. I’ve got plenty of vacation time. Plus I need the break. Feel like I’m going to lose it some days. I’ll go ahead and schedule the time.

Them: Great. Give you call to touch base.

You: Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Parting hug, handshake, fist bump, what-have-you.

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Attachment & Being Human

I’ve seen a lot of advice lately against getting ‘too attached’ — to people, desires, hopes. Is there’s a gauge like a radiation badge to measure how much is enough, or too much? Is our chief end to control our unruly natures and turn our emotions on and off like robots.1)

Emily Dickinson on Hope

Emily Says —

Something bugs me about non-attachment as a blanket answer to all human desire for connection, never mind the notion of karma. These can become unthinking dogma like anything else. The following nails something self-evident, however much we try to deny it, about our desire to connect:

… It is in our biology, in the fabric of us, to connect to other human beings, and anything which tries to insert shame and doubt into that instinct is bound to always twist us… If the thought, “I am happy right now”, can never occur without an accompanying, “And I am just delaying my ultimate fulfillment in being so”, then what, essentially, has life become? I’ve seen it in action – people reaching out for connection, and then pulling back reflexively, forever caught in a life of half-gestures that can’t ever quite settle down to pure contemplation or gain a moment of genuine absolute enjoyment.Dale DeBakcsy, New Humanist

The idea of non-attachment is useful in the right context. But we are human. We do grow attached to kids, loved ones, hopes, pleasures, ideas, beliefs pursuits large and small.2 Also toxic things. There are a lot of mixed messages in the Buddhist, Christian and New Age traditions. Maybe our goal should be to be more choosy about holding on and letting go and how. And savoring and enjoying worthwhile attachments while we’re here. And not putting so much energy and effort into stupid and harmful ones. — DA

1See most religion, utopian experiments, contemporary psychology, scientific futurism, psychotropic medication, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

2E.g. Wallace Shawn’s appreciation of a cold cup of coffee in My Dinner With Andre

‘The Office’ Inspired by Sade?

An excerpt from an essay by Lucy Ives in Lapham’s Quarterly:

“…Office work sets into tension, in close quarters, the ambitions of the individual and the destiny of the group. Office workers rub elbows with one another and gather at the water (or kombucha) cooler, rolling chairs collide and become entangled, sweaty softball tournaments are organized. It is possible that the success of the individual can become the success of the group, but it is more likely that in order for an office to succeed, individuality must be undermined, in that it must always directly serve the plural. Here is a rationale for the current vogue for open-plan work spaces, in which one has little privacy unless urinating, defecating, or making coffee. The open-plan-office worker must progress from a state of hyperconsciousness of the effect of her fleshly presence on her coworkers to total numbness in order to get any work done. In such work spaces, the sensitive are likely to spend their days endeavoring to stop unconsciously fidgeting or touching their faces or hair. Open-plan offices also stymie the unusually creative and independent, reducing them into collaborators. Management likes this. Accountability and credit can circulate in offices and even temporarily land, but there should be no authors in offices, only positions. Meanwhile, offices are not just places. Offices are not merely locations, nor are they particularly egalitarian. There are “office politics.” The office has a will of its own, yet, paradoxically, it is not exactly collective.

Setting aside for a moment the annoying behavior to which we must become inured if we are to survive the office (inane chats, baffling email communications, multipage budgets), we must also learn to cherish less our personal specificity. This soft injunction to conform often has a funny way of meaning that we must also become inured to our colleagues’ specific personalities. We do not fully choose or even desire our coworkers, no matter how intentional or progressive the workplace. At the office, we need one another to fulfill certain tasks by means of certain skills. We have less need, inevitably, of our coworkers’ personal histories, the deep reasons why they are the way they are or need whatever is needed. Nor do we have much use for our coworkers’ bodies, in all their ample particularity. We must, with our coworkers, develop forms of dependency and attachment that are risible and fungible, but not too risible and not too fungible. The legend emblazoned above most office doors should be “Try Not to Harm One Another When Convenient but, Above All, Don’t Love One Another.” Far worse than insulting one’s office mate or stepping on a colleague’s toe would be to recognize her or him as one’s soul mate. In such a scenario, all work would cease.”

— Submitted by DA

N.B.:

1. The appearance, quotation or reference to work from other authors and publications on this site does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.

2. For an interesting and early exploration of the relationship between automation and the de-personalization (not to say de-humanization) of work and life, please see Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine. More recently, see Andrew Sullivan’s I Used to be a Human Being in New York Magazine.

Received Wisdom: Return to Sender

A few years ago I bought a bicycle carrier for the car. The carrier was made in Sweden and well-designed. The Swedish generally seem to know what they’re doing: See Volvo, Ikea, Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman.

I’m not an engineer, nor do I play one on TV. I’ve worked as a business analyst and technical writer. I’m pretty good at figuring out how at least most non-human things work. The carrier never seemed to fit quite right. The bike stayed on the car and didn’t end up under the wheels of an eighteen-wheeler or in a ditch. But it scraped paint off parts of the car and off parts of my psyche it shouldn’t have. I fussed with the straps and adjusted various angles. I read the instructions – both online and printed. Tears were shed. Curse words were said. I passed from denial through bargaining to acceptance. Bitching and moaning gave way to muttering under my breath. I used the rack only now and then, anyway. We rarely experience the ideal in life, and I had done the best I could. Still, I cringed every time I put the carrier on.

179013_sized_930x1400

in March of this year I joined the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The group’s regional and international goals are to get water and other necessities of life to people who don’t have them. EWB projects are self-funded. Volunteer members work in partnership with domestic and overseas communities to dig holes, pour concrete and lay pipelines. Disciplines range from mechanical and civil to electrical, nuclear and software engineering. A fair number of women serve as members. Perhaps their estrogen-inspired desire to measure twice, cut once balances male members’ testosterone-fueled impulse to to ‘get ‘er done.’ But that’s a generalization. Since spending time with them, I’ve learned about elevations, hydraulic pressure (including ‘water hammer’), water treatment and local whiskey distilleries. The chapter holds periodic happy hours and fundraisers at local watering holes and other establishments.

Maybe some of that engineering expertise rubbed off on me. The next time I hauled out my bike carrier, I looked at it — I mean looked at it — and said, ‘Hold on, this just can’t be right. I’m going to find out what it is.

The cult of presumed expertise and received wisdom increasingly monopolizes our society: the notion that someone else always knows better than we do. I won’t say it’s making us stupid1, but the accoutrements we must master to live our lives grow daily more complicated (or so we tell ourselves). The sheer cognitive and emotional overhead of everything from keeping track of our ‘friends” exploits on Facebook to deciding what car to buy threatens to overwhelm us, resulting in a loss of confidence in ourselves and our abilities. This in turn undermines the self-reliance and individual liberty that democracy depends upon. There used to be a quaint expression called Yankee Ingenuity for taking the initiative and making things better ourselves rather than passively accepting the status quo or deferring to someone else. In the global marketplace this could now now just as easily include Southern Ingenuity, Goth Ingenuity, Muslim Ingenuity, LGBT Ingenuity or Indian Ingenuity.

When I took the dirty carrier off the car and laid it on the bedroom carpet (which I covered with newspapers), I found whoever assembled it at the factory or the store reversed two parts, putting them on opposite sides. I had simply accepted the state of affairs (or been too worn down to change it), assuming whoever put it together knew what they were doing. I scrounged for some metric wrenches. I disassembled the offending parts and carefully put them back together again (watching out for leftovers). This was no small task, and I shouldn’t have had to do it.2 But when I was done, the carrier fit properly on the car the way it should be.

What caused the ‘Hold on, here’, the ‘ah ha’ moment (which wasn’t that sudden, really) that caused me to go to the factory web site once more and compare what I saw to what was on the screen?

I like to think spending time with my engineering colleagues helped inspire me. Putting the carrier on the carpet allowed me to step back and reframe the problem (even if it left a smudge or two to clean up). Problem-solving is not (and cannot) simply be the domain of experts –- who themselves can get it wrong. We can all be victims of passivity or of received wisdom and arrogance: consequences simply of being human. When things don’t go according to plan, we must reserve the prerogative to try and figure out problems for ourselves. This realization can threaten the status quo and involves risk3, but can also empower us. — CDL

# # #

1Others do that. See recent references to Google, Wikipedia and other recent phenomena supposedly making us stupid. See also deskilling.
2Whatever sense of accomplishment I experienced was mitigated by frustration and the damage done to the car.
3Of failure, transgression and accountability.

 

Appropriate Technology

Since becoming involved with the Pittsburgh chapter of Engineers Without Borders, I’ve become intrigued by the notion of appropriate technology. EWB is kind of like Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), except members carry a slide rule (well, handheld calculator) instead of a stethoscope.

I’m not an engineer (nor do I play on on TV). I am interested in novice-expert learning, problem-solving, storytelling and how we share what we know. I have written before on the right tool for the job, and techniques and technology that fit particular needs within constraints of time, money and resources. This includes older technologies that can be re-purposed for modern needs. For example, Crankies , aka moving panoramas, offer a form of visual storytelling dating to before the 19th Century that does not require PowerPoint or electricity. (Carbide lamp, anybody?)

Image courtesy of The Crankie Factory. Pittsburgh’s first Crankie Fest is slated for 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Wilkins School Community Center in Swissvale.

Although it is 365 miles (587 kilometers) from the ocean, Pittsburgh is not entirely landlocked. Whatever is tossed into our region’s three rivers flows to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, included the plastic bags and other trash that end up in the oceans. Now an idea originally developed by a 16-year old Dutch kid named Boyan Slat may help provide a low-tech answer to removing it.

We’ve certainly been sold the notion that technology can meet our every need, from medications to self-driving cars. But there’s usually a tradeoff, as Sherry Turkle and others have recently written.

In assessing the appropriateness of any technology, we would do best to keep in mind the question Neil Postman asked: What problem does this technology solve? What problem(s) does it create?1 — CDL

1Please see a 1998 posting and appreciation of Neil Postman and his questions at Yale Engineering.

 

 

 

 

Cost-Benefit

I have mentioned David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology1 previously. Recent films like The Martian celebrate human ingenuity and our ability to prevail as individuals and as a species.

On the other hand, if we need any more ways to put our brains on hold and excuse ourselves from the burden of thinking and interacting with others, Google, Facebook and other companies are pouring enormous amounts of money and talent into helping us do just that. IBM is working to debut Sherlock (modeled after a fictitious high-functioning sociopath2 and cocaine addict). Google will try to anticipate your destination, even if you have no clue. Mark Zuckerberg announced that he charged his minions in 2016 with developing an AI-based personal digital assistant to help him navigate the complex rules of human interaction. As the December 31 NYT article about a wearable device called MyMe put it —

‘One of the most interesting potential applications will be MyMe’s ability to generate a “word cloud” from a conversation without actually recording the conversation itself. The idea is that you would be able to later gather insights to your interactions with people in a less invasive and more useful manner.’3

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, India is struggling to distribute functional toilets to its population, and in Equador, Fundacion in Terris has developed dry composting toilets. To give them credit, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the latter. Engineers without Borders (EWB), which I have just recently been introduced to in Pittsburgh, is building water systems in Ecuador.

EWB Pittsburgh Curingue Water Treatment

EWB Pittsburgh Members Discuss Water Supply Project with Residents in Curingue, Ecuador

 

Which of these are more important? We are all confronted in our lives and work with opportunities and constraints on our time, money, and attention. Every one of us has talent and ability to contribute.”4 Where do you want to put yours? Or, to paraphrase Bill, where do we want to go today? — CDL

1David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology, the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.

2Though this label has been convincingly disputed.

3An example of emotional deskilling, not to mention the notion that our uniquely human selves are commodities that can simply be reduced to an algorithm.

4Which unfortunately can be wasted in vain pursuits or taken for granted by individuals and institutions who don’t value them.

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