Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Odell's How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Or maybe we'd recognize Nietzsche's last man as ourselves:
"Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth! . . . The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest. 'We have discovered happiness'—say the last men, and blink thereby. . . . With the creators, the reapers, and the rejoicers will I associate: the rainbow will I show them, and all the stairs to the Superman. . . . What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal."
Nietzsche's last men are contemptible because they aren't really alive. They have their basic needs met, but there's no spark in them, no spirit. They're merely content to exist with conveniences they had no part in creating. They need to be awakened from this sleepwalking! 

That's a nutshell version of what I heard from Jenny Odell's lovely and compelling read, How to Do Nothing (but with a lot less Nietzsche in it).

While I loved the book in general, I do have some caveats. It skims over many big names in philosophy often without an explanation of who they are in the context of their times and, in many cases, without significant depth. It's a crash course in being that is still useful, but I felt like some old favourites were hijacked rather than being explored and developed. In the worst bits, it felt like name dropping. Seneca makes the first page, but just to say, "Seneca, in On the Shortness of Life, describes the horror of looking back to see that life has slipped between our fingers," followed by the appropriate quotation within a paragraph of other writers describing this same sensation. I'd like to assume she's read all the books she references, but, because of her drop and go style, it's entirely possible that she just googled "quotes on life is short." Then elsewhere she goes at length into the life and times with details that don't seem to fit the discussion at hand.

That being said, she does an exemplary job of developing a thesis around how to be in our technological age with some artful phrasing. Personally, as a fine arts student in a former life, it harkened back to the craft of seeing. To be able to produce art, first you have to actually see what you're looking at, a process that can be taught and refined but only with a limited degree of success. It's all a matter of attention and awareness. Odell brings this type of attention to all aspects of life, integrating it with Martin Buber's I-Thou mode of relating, something else I immersed myself in during university but then quickly dropped when I joined the 'real' world. It's hard to keep up that type of engagement with life, especially when myriad cat videos are peppered throughout my social media feeds.


Odell's complaint goes beyond the typical rants. She's concerned that the internet offers false targets for self-reflection, curiosity, and belonging. There are "financial incentives to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction" (xii). It's all about money, of course, and we've been sucked right into that vortex. Like others before her, she connects capitalism with colonialism, loneliness, and abuse. We are productive to the point of destroying our naturally productive ecosystem. Productivity as a goal in itself is a problem, and there's so much more to life than being useful.

Doing nothing is the first step in her solution; to get away from all the overstimulation (22), doing nothing is the antidote to all the rhetoric of growth and progress. But, instead of just resisting the attention economy, we need to change our focus and depth of our attention to develop a "sharpened ability to listen" (23).

Online connections are based on shared interests. All reactions are binary; there's no place for complexity or nuance. It gives us an illusion of belonging and community and certainty (which is particularly comforting), but it's all superficial at best. Inhabiting physical bodies in face-to-face encounters, on the other hand, is awkward and ambiguous, and it takes time to develop relationships, but they're actually the real thing. (ETA: There's an unspoken premise here, that I blindly agreed with, that real relationships are better than illusory ones, but that's an argument for another day.)


She takes a little stab at Epicurus and anyone who thinks escaping the rabble is the best option,  instead leaning towards a more Stoic attitude of unaffected engagement. This video does short work of comparing the two philosophies:

Odell has an interesting bit on the disastrous outcome of many hippie communes of the sixties that suggests we can never really escape the problems of the world. The experimental spaces were generally white and privileged where none of the men did dishes or cooked because it's impossible to avoid taking the capitalist system with you in a quest to build an anti-capitalist enclave since the systems we hope to escape are "like ineradicable contagions" (40). In the words of Hannah Arendt, peace is "an endless negotiation among free agents" (52) that doesn't dissolve once we leave the city centre. We can't retreat because greed and conflict will always be there to greet us. And Odell gets at the long-standing criticism of Epicurus that escaping is just plain selfish. Even if we could leave society behind, then we'd be pretty douchey for doing so. We each have a responsibility to the world. Instead of retreating, we need to contemplate how best to live and actually take some responsibility for our decisions for the very short time that we're here (59).


We fought for an 8-hour work day so we'd have 8 hours to work, 8 to rest, and 8 to do what we want (some undefined activity, like reading or playing), but we've lost this leisure because the internet is 24/7, and it's not a means of recharging. She doesn't delve into this, but some people, like Seneca and Russell, think we weren't very good with leisure to begin with - that there are many of us who are too herd-like and need to be led - but I'll grant that the internet likely didn't help matters.

Brief aside: BUT to what extent is social media just a continuation, or maybe a perfection, of a model of necessary control? Is it all a problem with the internet per se, or is it one solution to the problem of a people who demand to be led? Starting with Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd (1895) where he illustrated how easily masses can be manipulated, he believed we must be influenced for our own benefit. This was followed by Walter Lippman's Public Opinion (1922), the originator of the term "manufacture of consent," where he concluded that "the masses are a bewildered herd that need to be governed by a specialized class." And finally Edward Bernays's  Propaganda, which took Freud's ideas that we're all driven by irrational forces, and turned a corner to conclude we must be guided and satiated with things so we don't act on all our subconscious aggressions. The purpose of consumerism is to pacify. Democracy is palliative, a means to give unending consumer choice that distracts us from all else. Is ignoring Facebook the solution to a species that largely begs to be told what to do? BUT perhaps her solution IS tenable because it's not a matter of ignoring social media, but of directing the masses to cultivate a deeper level of attention in their lives so that the internet has less effect on them.  She's telling us what to do, but it's a difficult thing, and we might not all be up for that. Anyway...

Odell explains that the internet gives us "financially incentivized proliferation of chatter" that causes "waves of hysteria" (18) like the "orgies of feelings" Nolan Gertz described in his excellent book on Nihilism and Technology, which is an in-depth exploration of a similar topic. He says,
Technological innovations: "have enabled us to expand our communicative abilities, but they have achieved this not by making communication a richer, more meaningful experience but by reducing communication to mental tasks achieved by bodily abilities . . . as if communication was a goal-driven activity and accomplishing tasks was the only goal driving communication. . .. Technologies that isolate and enhance our abilities do not satisfy the cravings . . . they only exacerbate them . . . to see abilities as to-be-upgraded rather than as to-be-appreciated . . . our technologies will themselves become sources of suffering . . . Debates over how to improve our technologies are so consuming our attention that we forget to first question how to improve ourselves" (205-7).
Odell describes the exploitative design of media as an "arms race of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think" (59). It cuts off all calls to act as it circumvents the limbic system to keep us in a constant state of relaxed apathy yet always on high alert - ready for anything, but too wiped to do anything about it. Formerly, we wrote letters over days that gave us time to reflect and reason through ideas, but social media encourages us to react immediately with raw emotion, unthinking. The enemy is not the world, but "the channels through which you encounter it day to day" (61). And, most importantly, "In a time that demands action, distraction appears to be a life-and-death matter" (81).
"Forming any idea requires a combination of privacy and sharing. But this restraint is difficult when it comes to commercial social media, whose persuasive design collapses context within our very thought processes themselves by assuming we should share our thoughts right now--indeed, that we have an obligation to form our thoughts in public!" (173).
Distractions "keep us from doing the things we want to do . . . accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live . . . undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder . . . to want what we want to want" (114). Social media uses strategies identified by researchers Marwell and Schmitt in their taxonomy of 16 influence tactics, developed back in 1967, and grad student Devangi Vivrekar recently tracked and detailed 171 distinct persuasive design techniques on LinkedIn sites. Some argue that the solution is to help people have more self control, but Vivrekar argues that,
 "Portraying the problem as one in which we just need to be more mindful of our interaction with apps can be likened to saying we need to be more mindful of our behavior while interacting with the artificial intelligence algorithms that beat us at chess; equally sophistical algorithms beat us at the attention game all the time . . . persuasion is a given, and the only thing we can do about it is redirect it . . . it seems more justified to shift the focus of the discussion towards ethical persuasion. . . . metrics that align better with user values are not always contrary to the long-term business profits of the companies in the attention economy; they actually pose a market opportunity" (116-7).
This fits perfectly with the manufactured consent argument that it's fine to manipulate people as long as it's for their own good. However, Odell disagrees with the perception that the best solution is for companies to be more mindful of the behaviours they're persuading. There are big bucks in authenticity. Her retort:
"most forms of persuasive design (whether nefarious or 'empowering') assume a rather shallow form of attention. We might extrapolate from this to conclude that deeper, hardier, more nuanced forms of attention are less susceptible to appropriation, because discipline and vigilance inhere within them" (118)
So the key, according to Odell, is to tone our attention muscles such that the internet's hold on us can be more easily shaken off. If we train ourselves to look at details of the world, then we won't be knocked down when tossed a huge generality. We'll have the strength to scan it for complex bits of evidence.


She extols the virtues of parks, libraries, and public gardens for demanding nothing from us. Like Varoufakis explains in his economics primer, they have experiential value without having exchange value since they can't be used commercially, but they're always in danger of being destroyed for the very same reason. They're under threat "since what they 'produce' can't be measured or exploited or even easily identified - despite the fact that anyone in the neighbourhood can tell you what an immense value the garden provides" (14).

Inhabitable space is vital: "the physical world is our last common reference point . . . bioregions aren't anything more than loose conglomerations of species that grow well together" (149). We connect online because of superficial agreement on specific positions: algorithms recommend friends to us based on "instrumental qualities," but proximity connects us to people with "no 'obvious' instrumental reason to care about.

There's a practical reason to be concerned with public spaces: our physical neighbours will be there to help when your house burns down. But much more than that, when we meet people we haven't 'matched' with through an online survey or being on the same side of the arguments in a comment thread, we find common purpose in a way that expands us, rather than sticking to an online clique. It's like how Spotify helps you find songs that sound like other songs you like, but the radio provides music that's outside that limited field that can enrich our tastes.
"To acknowledge that there's something I didn't know I liked is to be surprised not only by the song but by myself . . . the definition of good music is music that 'sneaks up on you' and changes you . . . we are each a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding. . . [in art] something I don't know is talking to something else I don't know, through me . . .  I find it to be the surest indicator that I'm alive" (129).
We no longer have the luxury of taking public space for granted:
"If we want to relearn how to care about each other, we will also have to relearn how to care about place. . . . Parks don't just give us the space to 'do nothing' and inhabit different scales of attention. Their very existence, especially in the midst of a city or on the former sites of extraction, embodies resistance. . . .  My wish to preserve this place was also a self-preservation instinct . . . It's a bit like falling in love--that terrifying realization that your fate is linked to someone else's, that you are no longer your own. . . . How much more real my responsibility feels when I think about it this way!" (180-3).
Maybe if we become absorbed in our surroundings, the people and places in our lives, then we'll naturally stop looking at our phone as much!


Instead of succumbing to or escaping from the internet, we need to take a third option of staying put to fight. And here she is at at her best with a lucid description of the role of performance art in society to threaten questionable social norms (64). Fighting doesn't mean overthrowing the government, but illuminating outrageous public policy. There's a good discussion of Diogenes, the guy who lived in a barrel and challenged the state with mockery, who.
"opted for remaining in the world for the express purpose of challenging its customs and practices, its laws and conventions, by his worlds [sic] and, more so, by his actions. Practicing his extreme brand of Cynicism, then, he stood as a veritable refutation of the world and, as the Gospel would say of Saint John the Baptist, as 'a voice crying in the wilderness'" (68). 
Socrates made fun of the state with words, but she prefers Diogenes's method of showing people's behaviours to them and forcing them to question some typical but useless customs. Most of what we do and have are unnecessary to a happy life.

Odell repeats a mantra of "voluntate, studio, disciplina" (72), or will, effort, and training, from Cicero's On Fate:
"But it is possible that these defects may be due to natural causes; but their eradication and entire removal, recalling the man himself from the serious vices to which he was inclined, does not rest with natural causes, but with will, effort, training; and if the potency and the existence of fate is proved from the theory of divination, all of these will be done away with."
However, that doesn't entirely jibe with her insistence that escape isn't possible because we can't override our vices. If we're able to will ourselves to change, then we should be able to cloister ourselves from unwitting regurgitations of society. But anyway...

If we can will ourselves to change, to override our vices, then it's admirable to assert our will against custom and inclination, to refuse, boycott, and sabotage. And these "meaningful acts of refusal have come from the clarity and attention that makes organizing possible" (82).

She's aware that refusal requires latitude to be able to personally afford the consequences of our actions, and we can't suggest this third space/option to people scrambling for food or coping with a "repetitive injury of the spirit." Rosa Parks was unemployable for a decade after her refusal to move. Students make good activists because they have the least to lose. This suggests that it's all the more important that those with means are woken form their stupor. We are surrounded but unaffected by a storm. We just need to shift our attention to propel us towards acts of civil disobedience.

She recommends the excellent movie Blindspotting, to better understand another issue, which is that the people with agency, the new tenants in a gentrified area for instance, do not typically have a culture of protest behind them. The ones best able to change the system are not just unaware of the issue and their place in it, but, having had an easier life, they are unaccustomed to acts of questioning and arguing against the very system that helped them afford the renovated digs.


It's not a matter of leaving social media, but of investing attention elsewhere. The internet relies on capturing our shallow attention, so we need to cultivate deep attention. We should walk in nature and read a book before checking our feed in order to improve out attention's acuity. We need to retrain ourselves to actually see the world around us. Her means towards this is through bird watching, specifically naming birds however -- "Learning the names of things was my first step in perceiving not just 'land' or 'greenery,' but living bodies instead" (144) -- which is antithetical to Taoist notions that align with Buber's concern with I-it relationships. Noticing each individual bird is useful to developing attention skills, but naming each one accurately, I'd suggest, is superfluous.

The Tao Te Ching begins with a foundational chapter,
The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
But her main point here is in the training to see details, which can be extrapolated to training to search for context and nuance before having an emotional reaction. Internet algorithms make it impossible to win a chess game against the computer, but many still think we can rise above the advertising:
"understand the algorithmic versions of ourselves that such forces have learned to manipulate, and to know when we are being guilted, threatened, and gaslighted into reactions that come not from will and reflection but from fear and anxiety . . . attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw" (93).
This process enriches our capacity to resist, provides access to our own lives, and gives us the ability to transcend the self. We need to "resist the tendency to declare our observations finished" (112) when we are paying attention to detail and difference in our surroundings and with other creatures, and pay more heed to nuance and complexity in situations, events, and arguments.

Deep attention is "the stretching towards (ad tendere) in attention . . . which assiduously refuses to let the other collapse into any one instrumental category. . . .  Seeing this way means foregoing all of the many easier and more habitual ways to 'see'" (119). She invokes William James, who explains that we need to: "bring attention back, over and over again, to an idea 'held steadily before the mind until it fills the mind'"  (119). Untrained attention is fickle and scattered and "gives me less access to my own human experience" (119).

She wants us to attend to the world like Buber's I-Thou relationship to all things as part of a whole, which I can do, but only for a little while, and then I revert to seeing in others what I can gain from them (honour, entertainment, flattery, productivity, gratitude) rather than seeing other people, animals, trees, and the sky and water as all part of a unity of being. James is right that the effort isn't just with seeing, but also with seeing persistently. It's hard to maintain that way of thinking, and you might understand why I ditched it once I got busy with teaching and parenting. It can fall into the category of navel gazing activities when looked at from a more commerce-oriented perspective. But there it is. And Odell (and many others) believes we will dramatically benefit from continuing to maintain this form of perception.

Odell explains,
"It's in the realm of poetics that we learn how to encounter. . . . Rather than providing us with drop-down menus, they confront us with serious questions, the answering of which may change us irreversibly . . . what we pay attention to and what we do not renders our reality in a very serious sense. . . . people in the majority and the minority often see two different realities based on what they do and do not notice" (120).
Using art as an example, she described David Hockney's kaleidoscopic arrangements seen in his "Something New in Painting (and Photography) (and even Printing)" exhibition.

Odell adds, "When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world" (122). She describes her own backyard with these new eyes: "Snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away--all just on the other side of the chain-link fence" (126). We fail to notice everything in our hurry to keep up with the game of having the most stuff. Attending to the details of life in this I-Thou manner releases us from caring about that game. David Foster Wallace further illustrates the typical I-It relationships we tolerate: "If I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to . . . it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way" (129).

We need to "make room for the lived realities of other people, whose depths are the same as your own" (129), or, as Brené Brown says, we have to live with the belief that people are doing their best. They're not there with the intent of blocking our progress; that's our self-centered "default setting" talking. Wallace continues, if you train yourself to pay attention in this more profound way, then "It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars--compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things" (130).

But we have to want it.

And it can be difficult in our busy, crowded lives, wherein "the urban experience is a state of tension maintained against the instinct to disperse" (131). She might have used something from Freud's Civilization and its Discontents here, where he discusses the love/hate relationship we have with civilization, the primary cause and solution to suffering. We're part of it, but only by rising above it can we relish in our existence within it. Something like that.


I've always had a strong aversion to "branding" especially when it was introduced as something we should be teaching students to cultivate. Get them to create blogs that form around their brand! You can see from this blog that I've clearly rebelled, and I might get fewer hits because of that. There's no brand here, no narrowing of identity, just a loose collection of ideas as they come. Odell concurs that a personal brand is a capitalist entity that provokes us to have a self that is "a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact I don't know what a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgments 'I like this' and 'I don't like this,' with little room for ambiguity or contradiction" (137-8).

A more reified version of ourselves makes us dead before our time: "if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed . . . if we don't expand our attention outside of that sliver, we live in an 'I-It' world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us" (138). We want the safety of a social monoculture at the expense of an authentic life. So she calls on us to "relinquish the ideas of a controllable identity and of a neutral, apolitical existence (the mythology that attends gentrification)" (140). This fits with Alan Watts's idea that separation of an ego is merely a hallucination and the Buddhist reminder that we are each just a dying bag of bones.

Perceiving ourselves as a composition of ideas is a way to understand us as just part of an even larger scene. She reveals the oxymoron of suggesting we can be 'alone in nature' since we are always surrounded by other creatures. We can feel more lonely surrounded by people in an urban area, not because there's no people, but because there's no connections. This can be alleviated with a connection to humans or any other creature. It might even be arrogant to suggest that people are the best means of connection, a privileging that "comes out of the assumption that human beings are paradigmatic ethical objects, and that other life-forms are valuable only in so far as they are seen as similar to humans" (147). I'm guessing she, like me, is pretty introverted! She described an encounter with this form of connection:
"The sparrow and I were no longer strangers. It was no stretch of the imagination, nor even of science, to think that we were related. We were both from the same place (Earth), made of the same stuff. And most important, we were both alive" (143).
In contemplating the interconnectedness of all water systems worldwide she recognizes that, "anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching--does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed. We should refuse such dams first and foremost within ourselves," and she supports this with some Audre Lord.
"I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly . . . Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening" (152).
In the practice of close attention, we are allowed nuanced ecologies of being: "it asks us to loosen our grip on the idea of discrete entities . . . It also requires humility and openness, because to seek context is already to acknowledge that you don't have the whole story. . . . Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough" (153).

She raises another criticism of branding that I hadn't considered, that it creates an inauthentic internal coherence, which spirals down into a fight between coherence and authenticity. Personal consistency is winning to the extent that "apologizing and changing our minds online is so often framed as a weakness, we either hold our tongues or risk ridicule" (163). And even Zuckerberg admits that, "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly . . . having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity" (163). We've lost the privacy of parts of ourselves from one another. We are asked to be one thing at all times and in every circumstance, in order to be predictable and clearer for the algorithms at a great loss to the complexity of our human existence. There can be no surprises.


There are three problems activists face with online forms of change:
1. instantaneous communication leads to information overload until nothing gets heard
2. immediacy closes the time needed for political elaboration and contextualization
3. immediacy creates weak ties based on a common reaction

In looking at activism that works, Odell found that "Strong ties and well-defined political projects still come from action on the ground . . . face-to-face interaction, discussion, deliberation and confrontation" (165).  We need thought, incubated space, and incubated time.
"As the attention economy profits from keeping us trapped in a fearful present, we risk blindness to historical context at the same time that our attention is ripped from the physical reality of our surroundings. I worry about what this means, long term, for our propensity to seek out context, or our ability to understand context at all. Given that all of the issues that face us demand an understanding of complexity, interrelationship, and nuance, the ability to seek and understand context is nothing less than a collective survival skill" (165-6). 
The internet isn't curated by a wise librarian; "Instead this information throws itself at me in no particular order, auto-playing videos and grabbing me with headlines. And behind the scenes, it's me who's being researched. . . . If we only have so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve" (175-6).

According to Hannah Arendt, "space of appearance" - the visual aspect of being with people in a room - is the seed of democracy, which is
"defined by any collection of people who speak and act meaningfully together . . . 'Only where men live so close together that the potentialities for action are always present can power remain with them'. . . .  It is a space where I am empowered to see and be seen, hear and be heard, by those whose investment in the space is equal to mine" (176).
In successful examples of resistance, "The history of collective action . . . is still one of in-person meetings in houses . . . disagreements and debates were not triggers that shut the whole discussion down, but rather an integral part of group deliberation" (178). David Hogg explained that "anger will get you started but it won't keep you going" (178). We need to feel off each other's energy, in front of us, in order to keep working to make the world a better place.

She ends with a call for having "a goal without telos, a view toward the future that doesn't resolve in a point" (200), but she could just as easily look towards the Buddhist or Stoic idea of non-attachment to outcomes, a directive to avoid clinging to the result of our efforts. We can make choices that are ethically right regardless whether or not we reach the preferred outcome. The outcome isn't the point. We can look to the Tao for clarification:
Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success of failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
     you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
     you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
    rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
    the whole world belongs to you.

None of this is new, and Chris Hedges wrote a similar argument re-posted just this week about capitalist systems keeping us blind drunk on clickbait, and even Aziz Ansari's new special focuses on the important on nuance and attention and why we should start caring more about reality than about aligning ourselves with one side, but it does bear repeating over and over again because we really have a hard time hearing it and remembering that this variable ratio schedule of reinforcement waged by social media is usurping our lives. There is more out there, and we have the capacity to see it.

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