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october 01, 1999

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Printable Version of this excerpt.


Coercion
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Coercion
Why We Listen to What 'They' Say

by Douglas Rushkoff

Chapter 7: Virtual Marketing

Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say is copyright 1999 by Douglas Rushkoff, and published by Riverhead Books.


"The larger question, of course, is whether persuasive technology is a good idea at all when talking about turning a machine as soulless as a computer into what is essentially a propaganda engine."
--Denise Caruso, The New York Times

"We sell audience, not content."
Jonathan Sacks, AOL


I really believed the Internet could put an end to coercion.

This was back in 1988, when I was still getting laughed at for suggesting that someday nearly everyone would be using e-mail on a daily basis. My first book on cyberculture was canceled in 1992 because the publisher felt that the Internet would be a passing fad, "like CB radio," an editor explained. Two years later, the book was finally released, but even then the Internet was considered a relatively minor countercultural phenomenon some weirdos in San Francisco playing around with computers because they couldn't make friends.

What I knew for sure back then was that the Internet would somehow irrevocably change the way we relate to our media, and to one another. Early signs showed that the change would be immensely positive. People would finally have a medium for communicating freely with one another, instead of merely absorbing the messages of advertisers. At least I was right about the first part.

Early adopters of the Internet, like myself, attempted desperately to gain credibility for what we saw as a revolutionary technology, which meant welcoming, even pitching ourselves to, big business. To be backed by an investment banker a Fortune 500 company gestures amounted to an acknowledgment from all those folks who had once ridiculed our little Internet society that we were the ones holding the keys to the future.

I used to laugh when the executives to whom I consulted compared the Internet to television. TV is a one-way medium, I told them, while the Internet is two-way consultation I did at Sony, where the VP who took me to lunch kept referring to the Internet as "the next great broadcast technology." I explained to him that what we were dealing with was a community-based medium exchanging ideas and making new friends sushi. I smugly concluded that big businesses hoping to master the Net didn't stand a chance. They would invest their dollars in building infrastructures that they would never be able to dominate. What had happened to TV just couldn't happen to the Internet.

We both were wrong. TV wasn't the right comparison telephone were. Although the Internet would not provide businesses the means to broadcast their advertising-sponsored entertainment to millions of people all at once, it would allow them to communicate to millions of people, one at a time. It did not extend the reach of broadcast advertising, but it would serve as an inestimably powerful new weapon for direct marketing.

Although most current users missed out on the good old days of the Internet, back in the late 1980s online interaction was as much about sending as receiving. The primitive hardware and slow networks in use at the time dictated that the Internet was limited to text-only transmissions. Users would send e-mail, join in live chat sessions, or participate in asynchronous discussions (exchanges that take place over long periods of time) on bulletin boards and USENET groups. The few of us engaging in this new mode of communication felt lucky, and even sensed that the Internet would bring us a kind of liberation.

One of the reasons the early Internet spurred these utopian visions was that, like ham radio had done in the 1930s, it offered amateurs the opportunity to disseminate their ideas globally, except that now one needed to learn only a few modem string commands instead of Morse code. In any case, the Internet was less about the information being shared and more about contact. It didn't matter whether we were discussing the global economy or "Star Trek"; it was the means of discussion itself that felt so novel. Networked together through wires and computers, the Internet community experiment.

The intensity of this sensation provoked proclamations as outlandish and naïve as the best psychedelics-inspired rantings of the 1960s. Even Timothy Leary jumped onto the cyberculture bandwagon early, proclaiming that the Internet would transform society more profoundly than LSD had. To some, like cyber pioneer and Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow, it seemed as if the human race were hardwiring its members together into a single, global brain. He and others waxed on about the Internet as if it were the realization of the Gaia Hypothesis organism. Many believed that our fledgling communications infrastructure would one day bring about global communication and cooperation on an unimaginable scale. As my first book, Cyberia, came out in 1994, I began speaking to universities and other groups about my starry visions of this brave new world of online interaction. Even if these dreams depicted Internet-enhanced society as a tad more fantastic than what it ultimately would look like, they indicated the underlying experience essential to our newfound interconnectivity: We did not feel we were interacting with data, but with one another.

The Internet seemed so "sexy" not because of the pornography that happened to be available online, but because people and their ideas could comingle and mutate. A scientist sharing his new research could be challenged and provoked, and then engage in immediate dialogue with his challengers. A philosopher posing a new theory would be forced to defend it against criticism coming from Hawaii or Helsinki. Nothing was safe, and nothing was sacred opportunity to give voice to his or her opinions.

As the Internet grew in popularity, and more and more users discovered how absorbing and rewarding it could be, media conglomerates began to panic at the way interactive channels and constant feedback were eroding their monopoly over the mediaspace. By the mid-1990s, the Internet already had eaten away more than ten percent of the time its users previously spent watching television, and the damage was increasing by the month.

Like covered wagons circling in defense against the onslaught of an untamed, indigenous people, media companies banded together for protection. Viacom bought Blockbuster and Paramount, which in turn bought Simon and Schuster; Disney bought ABC which had already bought Capital Cities; Murdoch's News Corp. bought Fox; General Electric bought NBC; Time Warner bought CNN; and Westinghouse bought CBS. Once consolidated, these companies were braced for battle.

The Battle for Cyberspace

The war to retake the media, signaled by the creation of these corporate behemoths, manifested itself in the trenches as a step-by-step undoing of the processes that had liberated the media in the first place. The effects of the keyboard, the joystick, and the remote control had to be reversed.

While cyber optimists like me were out proclaiming the digital renaissance, other futurists with far better business credentials were busy recontextualizing it for the consumption of Wall Street. As skilled as they were at hyping interactive technology, they still had some tough questions to answer before anyone would invest in their visions. How would anybody, other than the phone companies, make a profit off people merely communicating with one another? Television had commercials, and movies had an admission price. People interacting online were not buying anything, nor were they in the captive or anxious frame of mind that would render them easy targets. They were having fun with one another.

This posed a serious challenge to those who wished to make money online. They could either hope that the anticommercial ethic of the early Internet would fade as more "mainstream" audiences found their way online, or else enact a public-relations campaign designed to speed up that conversion. The slow but steady process by which the Internet was surrendered to commercial use falls somewhere between a real conspiracy and an inevitable, natural shift. The key players certainly knew one another, and often developed their campaigns jointly. But they were merely extending the already awesome power of the market into a new arena. If market forces brought down the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, they could surely break through the resistance of a few Internet users.

Their first job was to gain both public acceptance and financial support for the appropriation of cyberspace. They had to convince investors that there was a way to make money online, while showing Netizens that business could make the Internet safer, cheaper, and more fully featured. Who were "they," exactly? In some cases, they were young computer programmers looking for ways to turn their formidable talents into rewarding careers. In other cases, they were well-recognized but underpaid futurists, social theorists, and economics philosophers looking to finally cash in on the many ways they had foreseen the digital age. The rest were marketing gurus who had already used television, the telephone, and direct mail with much success, and sought to extend their reach.

Ironically, perhaps, it was my faith in the liberating powers of cyberspace that made me one of the last people to take such efforts seriously, and to reckon with the Internet's coercive potential. I saw the computer keyboard and mouse as our best weapons in the effort to turn around the mind-numbing impact of traditional media. Just as the remote control had deconstructed the television image and the joystick demystified it, the keyboard and mouse spawned a new generation of do-it-yourself media tacticians. That's why, even as my opinions were being sought by corporations hoping to exploit these technologies for their own ends, I was incapable of seeing where their efforts would lead us.

In the early nineties, I attended several meetings at HarperCollins (the book company that published Cyberia), in which some of the executives running the company's new multimedia division wanted to know how to leverage their vast backlist to gain a foothold on the Internet. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owned HarperCollins, already had an online service called Delphi. Surely there was a way to "synergize" these two subsidiaries, they thought. The question was simply how to go about it. Like most of the New York companies looking to exploit the Internet, HarperCollins and Delphi understood that the main thing they could offer consumers was content. "San Francisco may own the interface," I remember one executive telling me, "but New York owns the content." As long as content meant copywritten texts, of course, he was right. If HarperCollins could turn the Internet into a distribution channel for its massive storehouse of text, games, and other copywritten materials, it could cash in.

After a year of publishing books in CD-ROM format, however, HarperCollins's executives realized that these computer products were no match for the thrill of live engagement with other human beings on the Net, and, by 1996, had reduced their multimedia division to a token, administrative presence. Countless other companies followed suit. Something had to be done.

Although businesses had failed in their efforts to capitalize on the initial surge in Internet use, the race was on to find a way to make money online. Many different companies, working independently, arrived at a similar strategy. The first step was to reverse the do-it-yourself attitude that the computer keyboard had provoked, and restore the supremacy of commercial content over social contact. The trick would be to change the perception of the Internet as a communications medium to a broadcast medium, which meant convincing users that our interactions with one another were less important than the data we could download and the things we could purchase with our new equipment. Accordingly, the work of futurists like Alvin Toffler and Marshall McLuhan was mined for models and concepts that could reframe our understanding of what was happening to us. That's how Information Age became the label to describe the communications breakthrough. Previously, the users themselves had been the content of the Internet. Now, it would be "information."

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the corporate-sponsored Media Lab at MIT and a major investor in Wired magazine, drew a faulty but calculated distinction between online and real-world interaction. He said that in the physical world, we exchange atoms, but that in the online world, we exchange bits information age, chiefly characterized by the fact that we now would exchange units of data rather than physical objects.

The problem with reducing online interaction to an exchange of bits, and the interactive age to an information age, is that it allows cyberspace to be quantified and, ultimately, commodified. The fact is that the social and emotional substance of an online interaction cannot be described in terms of bits of information. As far as the nomenclature of these cyber theorists was concerned, a social dimension to online transmissions did not exist. The Internet was not something a person engaged with; it was a set of information that could be accessed. And anything that can be accessed can be given a price tag.

The second stage of the transformation was the remystification of the media, which had been demystified by the advent of interactive devices like the joystick and the remote control. Wired used busy graphics and wrote in a buzzword-laden style, stoking newcomers' fears that the Internet was technically complex and conceptually daunting. Without proper instruction, users would surely get lost out there. Meanwhile, more mainstream publications like Time magazine, themselves threatened by competition from the many news services sprouting up online, ran frightening cover stories about "cyberporn." The New York Times reported that innocent people were jeopardizing their health by taking advice from online holistic practitioners, while drive-time radio fed us stories about dangerous computer viruses the software companies selling us protection from these evils.

Once the Internet was seen as a danger zone best traveled with the help of experts, it wasn't long before a mediating filter known as World Wide Web became the preferred navigational tool. Unlike bulletin boards or chat rooms, the Web is opaque. You can't see through it to the activities of others. You don't socialize with anyone when you visit a Web site; you read text and look at pictures. This is not interactivity. Like a fake decibel meter at a basketball game where the crowd is led to believe its cheers are actually moving the needle, there's nothing truly participatory about it. Although anyone can publish his ideas on his own Web site tremendous leap for self-publishing to conversation. But only by compromising its communicative function could the Web's developers turn the Internet into a shopping mall. The sole interactive outlet that remained for most users was the back channel of private e-mail.

Further aiding the effort to remystify new media, designers made the programs necessary to navigate the Web more complex than earlier tools. The original Internet was built and navigated by researchers and university students using "shareware" free. These simple programs worked on the most primitive computers, and they functioned in a transparently straightforward fashion. Their no-frills designs and freely published code helped users understand how they were put together and allowed anyone to participate in their development and offer enhancements. The original Internet was a "shareware universe," expanded and maintained chiefly by its own participants.

By 1995, Netscape had become a for-profit company, and the "browser wars" were under way. An ethic of free-market competition replaced the era of freewheeling cooperation. As if to rewrite history, many Internet experts and journalists developed a mythology that the Internet was developed not by university researchers but by the United States military. A widely circulated article by cyberpunk author and Global Business Network member Bruce Sterling implied that the Internet was just an extension of the Defense Department's effort to maintain a communications infrastructure in the event of a nuclear war. Although the true history of the Internet, and the military's rather indirect contribution, were later recounted in Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's 1997 book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, the damage had been done. The Internet would forever be associated with the Cold War arms race, and it's communitarian roots could be discounted more easily. Anyone who wrote articles disagreeing with the folklore of a military-built Internet or the virtues of a competitive marketplace was quickly labeled a "leftist."

As profit-seeking software companies took over where shareware developers left off, programs became correspondingly less efficient and less accessible. The code for software was no longer routinely released to the public for us to modify or improve. Even if it had been, these new programs were much too convoluted for the average user to understand. We were once again at the mercy of the companies from whom we bought our equipment and software. Newer versions of software required newer versions of operating systems, which in turn required newer and more powerful computer chips and increases in RAM (memory). People who wanted to use the Web were initiated into an endless cycle of upgrades. In a campaign of planned obsolescence that made the 1970s automotive industry's schemes look like child's play, computer manufacturers and software companies conspired to force more and more purchases. Imagine if automobile companies controlled the designs not only of vehicles but of the roads. By changing the kinds of surfaces we drive on, they could force us to buy new kinds of tires, and then new kinds of cars on which those tires fit. Similarly, Microsoft can use proprietary code to develop Internet sites that require new kinds of browsers, browsers that require new kinds of operating systems, and operating systems that require enhanced hardware.

The dominance of the World Wide Web also gave traditional entertainment companies, salespeople, and advertisers an Internet they could at last understand. From now on, the Internet would be treated like the broadcast media they had already mastered. The entertainment industry began to invest heavily in online video and music services in the hope of one day being able to charge people money for receiving such goods via the Internet. Salespeople understood that Web sites gave them a way to put their entire catalogs of merchandise online, and that secure credit-card transactions would allow customers to purchase whatever they wanted without leaving their homes. Marketers were delighted by the development of a more tractable mediaspace in which to peddle their wares. They bought space on the most heavily trafficked Web sites for slick "banner" ads to be clicked on, diverting Internet users to commercial Web sites.

The third way marketers co-opted the interactive mediaspace was through the manipulation of shortening attention spans. Although online real estate is essentially infinite, the willingness of human beings to sift through it in real time is not. Reviving a term coined by social scientist Herbert Simon in 1971, the new economists announced that we had entered an "attention economy," where the only limiting factor on the business community's ability to earn money online was the number of "eyeball-hours" they could wrest from an Internet user. New methods of attention control to Internet portals who had grown used to the freedom of the mouse and remote control. Meanwhile, all this focus on attention spans and resistant youth led to a flurry of news reports about attention deficit disorder, which in turn prompted worried parents to seek medications like Ritalin for their children so that they could compete effectively in the complex and highly accelerated marketplace of the twenty-first century.

Mice in a Maze: Pacing and Leading Online

But an Internet run by commercial interests means more than just customized banner ads and spam. It is a world more contained and controllable than a theme park, where the techniques of influence can be embedded in every frame and button. Microsoft has an entire department dedicated to "Decision Theory and Adaptive Systems" interfaces. Although much of the department's work is geared toward creating more user-friendly interfaces, my contacts at the company claim the much-shrouded division's true purpose is to determine the decision points in online behavior and how to manipulate them effectively.

The field of pacing and leading through computers has been dubbed "captology" by B. J. Fogg, a Sun Microsystems researcher who studies the effects of interfaces on human behavior. Like a travel map provided by the AAA, complete with instructions on where to stop for food and accommodations, the interfaces and software we use can direct our actions and even our purchasing decisions. The display on GTE's Airfone screen plane Theoretically, a cellular-phone display screen could be programmed to do the same thing database of your most frequent calls.

A screensaver program available online for certain Hewlett-Packard color printers encourages the purchase of more HP products. As technology critic Denise Caruso reported in her New York Times column,

The virtual pet for the computer desktop encourages users to make multiple original copies on the printer instead of duplicating the original printout on a color copier. This, in turn, keeps them buying more of Hewlett's color inks....The larger question, of course, is whether persuasive technology is a good idea at all soulless as a computer into what is essentially a propaganda engine.4

Today, we don't even have to venture onto a computer to be drawn into closed systems of electronic coercion. A best-selling book called The One to One Future instructs marketers how to customize direct marketing in order to create the same kinds of consumption loops. For example, in the one-to-one future that the authors envision, all of our retail purchases will be recorded in a series of personal databanks. A "diet data bank" would use the UPC bar codes scanned at the checkout line to record our supermarket purchases. Diet-conscious customers could be identified through their patterns of consumption, and even given their own portable scanners. With these devices in hand, they could stroll through the aisles, scan the UPC bar codes on different packages, and read a computerized display of the products' nutritional content. Of course, the store would also accumulate a complete record of every product that the customer evaluated, in what order, for how long, and whether he chose to buy it.

This designer consumption would amount to a nearly hermetic feedback loop between each consumer and his marketers the customer's taste is mirrored and then slowly led toward progressively more extreme manifestations of itself. It is a recipe for technologically induced obsessive-compulsive behavior, as our desires are repeatedly amplified and then fed back to us. The one-to-one future differs from the marketing we're subjected to today only in its speed and specificity.

Perhaps this process is easier to comprehend when it happens in reverse. Shopping channels on cable television feature hosts whose dialogues and presentations may appear bizarre to unaccustomed viewers. Actually, their odd, mechanical behavior is shaped moment-to-moment by the rate of telephone purchases. As anyone who has watched one of these channels knows, the number of items sold is continuously tallied in a small box in one corner of the screen since the number is displayed on a monitor in the studio, so the host making the pitch can determine how his tone, language, and style of delivery are influencing the number of sales. If speaking faster makes the number increase more rapidly, he will maintain his accelerated rate of speech, as long as it keeps working. In this way, the host becomes a kind of automaton, stuck in a feedback loop where his only goal is to make that number increase.

The MovieFone Syndrome

Like the host on a shopping channel, the people turning media into an electronic marketplace aren't fully conscious of what they're doing. By using the Internet to automate their business models, they have combined the force of the market with the power of the computer to amplify the blind effects of each. Commercial media seems to have taken on a life of its own, dedicated to selling more goods to more and more people in less and less time. Although human beings set the whole process in motion, it's as if once they built the engine, they abandoned the throttle and all the other controls to the machine itself. It has been running on automatic ever since.

As the average consumer becomes a cog in this media machine, he finds himself succumbing to the pressures of the inevitable network externalities that emerge. Our slow acceptance of a commercial Internet was just such a process.

Call it the MovieFone syndrome. At first, the telephone ticket service seemed like a terrific convenience. It was novel and fun. Instead of waiting on long lines at the box office, we could find out show schedules and secure our seats ahead of time, all from a touch-tone phone for just a few dollars per ticket. Once a critical mass of moviegoers signed on to this technology, however, refusing to use the service and pay the extra charge meant the strong possibility that our movie selections might be sold out. Anyone who couldn't find a way to get to the theater well before show time was gently forced to buy the tickets through the service, whatever the cost. Now some telephone ticket services allow callers to reserve the seats they will sit in, effectively creating a new class of moviegoer. Those who wish to have good seats charge. What began as a convenience quickly became a necessity bring the price of a movie ticket above ten dollars.

The MovieFone syndrome demonstrates the darker side of network externalities increases with its wide acceptance. Something that begins as a novelty, like a telephone ticket service or a version of an Internet browser or even a kind of direct-marketing technique, soon becomes so widely accepted that those who don't partake begin to lose their ability to enjoy, to engage in, and to discriminate between the things society has to offer. People who don't learn to use the money machine at the bank are penalized with a reduced number of live tellers and longer lines. People who don't opt for the expense of cable television miss their local sports teams' broadcasts. And similarly, those who don't participate in the world of online commerce may be risking financial and cultural obsolescence.

Take Microsoft's online commercial strategy, sidewalk.com. Ostensibly a guide to restaurants, movies, and other attractions in America's major cities, the online service is designed to become a "point of purchase" for these forms of entertainment. Users click through friendly databases of information until they find the restaurant they want to go to, and then make their reservations online. In some cases, users will pay a small service charge, while in others the restaurant or business may pay Microsoft directly for the publicity and exposure to new customers.

Since Microsoft makes the dominant Web browsing software, many of the features of their Sidewalk site take advantage of their own proprietary software, or of membership in their proprietary online service. As more users take advantage of the convenience of the service, the law of network externalities will come into effect, making the service software necessary for accessing it will eventually need to be upgraded, as will the computers to run that software. Consumers will spend more time and energy paying for new equipment and software, then learning how to operate it, just so that they can participate in the same sorts of activities they did before.

And the people who can't afford all this? They'll either be left out of the loop completely or choose to take advantage of the many free and discount online services currently being offered. Of course, these free Internet packages require that the user sit through commercials and promotions. The poor pay for their access by submitting to more marketing. Those better off, meanwhile, pay cash for the privilege of commercial-free commerce.

Once Microsoft begins to offer electronic forms of currency and credit complete. We are dependent on the software, the machines, and the monetary scheme in order to participate in our culture, and the company providing it to us takes a profit at each level. Because Microsoft and its competitors are private companies, accountable to no one (unless they are found to have broken laws), the consumers have no recourse. Although, in theory, we can "vote with our dollars," we risk isolation or worse. Buying computers with alternative, incompatible operating systems cuts us off from the network. Unless we jump off together, in large enough numbers, our protests hurt no one but ourselves.

What began as an egalitarian set of channels quickly became a direct feeding tube for advertisements and a self-contained environment for automated commerce. In an attempt to limit the abuse of the networks by con artists and relentless marketers, Internet service providers implemented new technical protocols that restricted the open functioning of the Internet, which ultimately sent Netizens to the closed communities of large commercial providers with their own business agendas. Mainstream media outlets, surviving on the revenue from hi-tech advertisers and their own parent corporations' new-media subsidiaries, lead the public relations effort by spinning this disaster as a Long Boom for big business. After all, the global economy itself, banking on the future prosperity of expanding hi-tech markets, is depending on it. Like well-trained propagandists, they warn of the dangers of noncompliance, the horrors that await those who refuse protection, and the glorious future for all who get with the program.

The current direction of Internet technology promises a further calcification of its interactive abilities. Amped-up processing speed and modem baud rates do nothing more for communication than speed things up. They do, however, allow for the development of an increasingly TV-like Internet, making the Sony executive's dream of the Web as a broadcast medium a reality. As we buy bigger computers and faster modems, we simply expedite the arrival of set-top computers and interactive television.

The only obstacle I've seen to the implementation of Web-enhanced TV as "convergence media" have Internet access on our televisions, we might choose to tune in to noncommercial Web sites or, worse, interact with other users instead of watching the major networks' programming. When I consulted to a subsidiary of TCI about developing content for their @Home broadband cable network fully interactive set of TV channels through which viewers can play games and make purchases their own content and away from everyone else's.

It was the prospect that the Internet would end up being just another theater of operations for the media wars that provoked my colleagues and me to publish a document called Technorealism in 1998. Most of us had been using the Internet for years but had found we just weren't enjoying it anymore. Nowhere could we find people championing the technology without also pushing what had become the party line of corporate capitalism. Our aim was to correct the many myths dominating discussions of new media, without giving up on the Internet's still-unrealized promise as a tool for communication. Perhaps a set of policies could be developed that returned the expansion and use of these networks to public or even civic control. When my friend who writes about technology for Time magazine found out I had signed on to Technorealism, he was aghast. "I reserve judgment," he said in our first phone conversation after the document's publication, "but I think you're crazy to put your name on that thing."

Still, no matter how dark things have seemed, I can't help but be optimistic about where this evolution of virtual coercion may ultimately take us. Perhaps the thousands of signatures on the document are an indication that I'm not alone in my disillusionment about how these technologies are being used, and how little control we seem to have over them.

And, of course, I never would have thought to write about the techniques of coercion in the first place had I not witnessed them being practiced by a machine. I don't know if I ever would have come to grips with my own participation in their development if I hadn't seen them applied so aggressively in the electronic marketplace. Like watching a time-elapsed scene from Godfrey Reggio's hypnotic documentary Koyaanisqatsi, where the daily motions of a chaotic city suddenly make rhythmic sense, experiencing the warp-drive cycles of computer-automated coercion provides a new kind of perspective on a very old art.

In the worst case, by pacing and leading ourselves into abject despair, we may force ourselves to find remedies more profound than Prozac. We may choose to take the time to distinguish between what we're told and what we really want. We might even find a way to think for ourselves.

Buy Coercion at Amazon.com

Visit Douglas Rushkoff's website

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