Data Storms and the Tyranny of Manufactured ForgettingThe current mainstream debate regarding the crisis in Iraq and Syria offers a near perfect example of both the death of historical memory and the collapse of critical thinking in the United States.
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.For in the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and declining consciousness of the past, but of the aggressive [assault on] whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness. – Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
All reification is forgetting. – Herbert Marcuse
The current mainstream debate regarding the crisis in Iraq and Syria offers a near perfect example of both the death of historical memory and the collapse of critical thinking in the United States. It also signifies the emergence of a profoundly anti-democratic culture of manufactured ignorance and social indifference. Surely, historical memory is under assault when the dominant media give airtime to the incessant war mongering of politicians such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham and retro pundits such as Bill Kristol, Douglas Feith, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz – not one of whom has any credibility given how they have worked to legitimate the unremitting web of lies and deceit that provided cover for the disastrous US invasion of Iraq under the Bush/Cheney administration.
History repeats itself in the recent resurgence of calls for US military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Such repetitions of history undoubtedly shift from tragedy to farce as former Vice President Dick Cheney once again becomes a leading pundit calling for military solutions to the current crises in the Middle East, in spite of his established reputation for hypocrisy, lies, corporate cronyism, defending torture and abysmal policymaking under the Bush administration. The resurrection of Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of the 21st century, as a legitimate source on the current crisis in Syria and Iraq is a truly monumental display of historical amnesia and moral dissipation. As Thom Hartman observes, Cheney bears a large responsibility for the Iraq War, which “was the single biggest foreign policy disaster in recent – or maybe even all – of American history. It cost the country around $4 trillion, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, left 4,500 Americans dead, and turned what was once one of the more developed countries in the Arab World into a slaughterhouse. What room is there for historical memory in an age “when the twin presiding deities are irony and violence”?
Missing from the commentaries by the mainstream media regarding the current situation in Iraq is any historical context that would offer a critical account of the disorder plaguing the Middle East. A resurrection of historical memory in this moment could provide important lessons regarding the present crisis. What is clear in this case is that a widespread avoidance of the past has become not only a sign of the appalling lack of historical knowledge in contemporary American culture, but a deliberate political weapon used by the powerful to keep people passive and blind to the truth. Of course, there are many factors currently contributing to this production of ignorance and the lobotomizing of individual and collective agency.
Such factors extend from the idiocy of celebrity and popular culture and the dumbing down of American schools to the transformation of the mainstream media into a deadly mix of propaganda, violence and entertainment. The latter is particularly crucial as the collapse of journalistic standards that could inform the onslaught of information finds its counterpart in an unrelenting rise of political and civic illiteracy. The knowledge and value deficits that produce such detrimental forms of ignorance not only crush the imagination, critical modes of social interaction, and political dissent, but also destroy those public spheres and spaces that promote thoughtfulness, thinking, critical dialogue and serve as “guardians of truths as facts,” as Hannah Arendt once put it.
The blight of rampant consumerism, unregulated finance capital and weakened communal bonds is directly related to the culture’s production of atomized, isolated and utterly privatized individuals who have lost sight of the fact that “humanity is never acquired in solitude.” This retreat into private silos has resulted in the inability of individuals to connect their personal suffering with larger public issues. Thus detached from any concept of the common good or viable vestige of the public realm, they are left to face alone a world of increasing precarity and uncertainty in which it becomes difficult to imagine anything other than how to survive. Under such circumstances, there is little room for thinking critically and acting collectively in ways that are imaginative and courageous.
Surely, the celebration and widespread prevalence of ignorance in American culture does more than merely testify “to human backwardness or stupidity”; it also “indicates human weakness and the fear that it is unbearably difficult to live beset by continuous doubts.” Yet, what is often missed in analysis of political and civic illiteracy as the new normal is the degree to which these new forms of illiteracy not only result in an unconscious flight from politics, but also produce a moral coma that supports modern systems of terror and authoritarianism. Civic illiteracy is about more than the glorification and manufacture of ignorance on an individual scale: it is producing a nationwide crisis of agency, memory and thinking itself.
How else to explain, for instance, a major national newspaper’s willingness to provide a platform for views that express an unchecked hatred of women – as when The Washington Post published George Will’s column in which he states that being a rape victim is now “a coveted status that confers privileges”? Will goes on to say that accusations of rape and sexual violence are not only overblown, but that many women who claim they were raped are “delusional.” There is a particular type of aggressive ignorance here that constitutes a symbolic assault on women, while obscuring the underlying conditions that legitimate sexual violence in the United States. Will expresses more concern over what he calls the “pesky arithmetic” used to determine the percentage of women actually raped on campuses than the ever-increasing incidence of sexual assault on women in colleges, the military, and a wide variety of other private and public spheres.The clueless George Will, evidently angry about the growing number of women who are reporting the violence waged against them, draws on the persuasive utility of mathematical data as a way to bolster a shockingly misogynist argument and flee from any sense of social and moral responsibility. While such expressions of resentment make Will appear as an antediluvian, privileged white man who is truly delusional, he is typical of an expanding mass of pundits who live in a historical void and for whom emotion overtakes reason. Increasingly, it appears the American media no longer requires that words bear any relationship to truth or to a larger purpose other than peddling rigid and archaic ideologies designed to shock and stupefy audiences.
Clearly, the attack on reason, evidence, science and critical thought has reached perilous proportions in the United States. A number of political, economic, social and technological forces now work to distort reality and keep people passive, unthinking and unable to act in a critically engaged manner. Politicians, right-wing pundits and large swaths of the American public embrace positions that support Creationism, capital punishment, torture and the denial of human-engineered climate change, any one of which not only defies human reason but stands in stark opposition to evidence-based scientific arguments. Reason now collapses into opinion, as thinking itself appears to be both dangerous and antithetical to understanding ourselves, our relations to others and the larger state of world affairs. Under such circumstances, literacy disappears not just as the practice of learning skills, but also as the foundation for taking informed action. Divorced from any sense of critical understanding and agency, the meaning of literacy is narrowed to completing basic reading, writing and numeracy tasks assigned in schools. Literacy education is similarly reduced to strictly methodological considerations and standardized assessment, rooted in test taking and deadening forms of memorization, and becomes far removed from forms of literacy that would impart an ability to raise questions about historical and social contexts.
Literacy, in a critical sense, should always ask what it might mean to use knowledge and theory as a resource to address social problems and events in ways that are meaningful and expand democratic relations. I have commented on the decline of critical literacy elsewhere and it is worth repeating:
I don’t mean illiterate in the sense of not being able to read, though we have far too many people who are functionally illiterate in a so-called advanced democracy, a point that writers such as Chris Hedges, Susan Jacoby, and the late Richard Hofstadter made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. I am talking about a different species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics – one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions; it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics. This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age. The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by [an educational] deficit, a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy. As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.
Needless to say, as John Pilger has pointed out, what is at work in the death of literacy and the promotion of ignorance as a civic virtue is a “confidence trick” in which “the powerful would like us to believe that we live in an eternal present in which reflection is limited to Facebook, and historical narrative is the preserve of Hollywood.” Among the “materialized shocks” of the ever-present spectacles of violence, the expanding states of precarity and the production of the atomized, repressed and disconnected individual, narcissism reigns supreme. “Personal communication tends to all meaning,” even as moral decency and the “agency of conscience” wither.
How else to explain the endless celebration of an unchecked self-interest, a culture that accepts cruelty toward others as a necessary survival strategy, a growing “economics of contempt” that maligns and blames the poor for their condition rather than acknowledging injustices in the social order, or the paucity of even the most rudimentary knowledge among the American public about history, politics, civil rights, the Constitution, public affairs, politics and other cultures, countries and political systems? Political ignorance now exists in the United States on a scale that seems inconceivable: for example, “only 40 percent of adults know that there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Congress,” and a significant number of Americans believe that the Constitution designated English as the country’s official language and Christianity as its official religion.
What is particularly disturbing is the way in which there has been a resurgence of a poisonous form of technical rationality in American culture, or what I call the return of data storms that uncritically amass metrics, statistics and empirical evidence at the expense of knowledge that signals the need for contextualization and interpretation in support of public values, the common good and the ethical imagination. Data storms make an appeal to a decontextualized and allegedly pure description of facts, and what Herbert Marcuse called a “misplaced concreteness,” one that was particularly “prevalent in the social sciences, a pseudo-empiricism which . . . tended to make the objectivity of the social sciences a vehicle of apologetics and defense of the status quo.”This obsession with metrics feeds an insatiable desire for control and lives in an eternal present, removed from matters of justice and historical memory. The novelist, Anne Lamott, is right in arguing that the “headlong rush into data is overshadowing ‘everything great and exciting that someone like me would dare to call grace. What this stuff steals is our aliveness . . . Grids, spreadsheets and algorithms take away the sensory connection to our lives, where our feet are, what we’re seeing, all the raw materials of life, which by their very nature are disorganized.’ Metrics, she said, rob individuals of the sense that they can choose their own path, ‘because if you’re going by the data and the formula, there’s only one way.'”
Not only is this mode of rationality antithetical to other modes of reasoning that recognize and value what cannot be measured as being essential to life as well as democratic values and social relations, but it also carries the weight of a deadly form of masculine logic wedded to toxic notions of control, violence and ideological purity. It is a form of rationality that serves the interests of the rich and obscures modes of thinking that are more capacious and reflective in their capacity to address broader conceptions of identity, citizenship and non-market values such as love, trust and fidelity.
It bears repeating: reality is now shaped by the culture’s infatuation with a narrow, depoliticizing rationality, or what Frankfurt School theorist Max Horkheimer called instrumental reason. Bruce Feiler, writing in The New York Times, argues that not only are we awash in data, but words and “unquantifiable arenas like history, literature, religion, and the arts are receding from public life, replaced by technology, statistics, science, and math. Even the most elemental form of communication, the story, is being pushed aside by the list.” Historical memory and public space are indeed the first casualties in this reign of ideological tyranny, which models agency only on consumerism and value only on exchange value. The cult of the measurable is enthralled by instant evaluation, and fervently believes that data hold the key to our collective fate. John Steppling sums up the authoritarian nature of this ideological colonization and monopoly of the present. He writes:
Today, the erasure of space is linked to the constant hum of data information, of social networking, and of the compulsive repetition of the same. There is no space for accumulation in narrative. Emotional or intellectual accumulation is destroyed by the hyper-branded reality of the Spectacle. So, the poor are stigmatized for sleep. It is a sign of laziness and sloth. Of lassitude and torpor. The ideal citizen is one at work all the time. Industrious and attentive to the screen image or the sound of command. Diligence has come to mean a readiness to obey. A culture of shaming and reprimand is based on a model of reality in which there is no history to reflect upon. Today’s mass culture only reinforces this. The “real” is a never changing present. Plots revolve around the idea of disrupting this present, and then returning to this present. Actual tragedy, Chernobyl or Bhopal or Katrina, are simply ignored in terms of their material consequences. What matters are events that disrupt the Empire’s carefully constructed present reality.
It gets worse. Within this reality, endlessly hawked by a neoliberal brand of authoritarianism, people are turned into nothing more than “statistical units.” Individuals and marginalized groups are all but stripped of their humanity, thereby clearing the way for the growth of a formative culture that allows individuals to ignore the suffering of others and to “escape from unbearable human dilemmas . . . . Statistics become more important than real human life.”
Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyons have connected the philosophical implications of experiencing a reality defined by constant measurement to how most people now allow their private expressions and activities to be monitored by the authoritarian security-surveillance state. No one is left unscathed. In the current historical conjuncture, neoliberalism’s theater of cruelty joins forces with new technologies that can easily “colonize the private” even as it holds sacrosanct the notion that any “refusal to participate in the technological innovations and social networks (so indispensable for the exercise of social and political control) . . . becomes sufficient grounds to remove all those who lag behind in the globalization process (or have disavowed its sanctified idea) to the margins of society.” Inured to data gathering and number crunching, the country’s slide into authoritarianism has become not only permissible, but participatory – bolstered by a general ignorance of how a market-driven culture induces all of us to sacrifice our secrets, private lives and very identities to social media, corporations and the surveillance state.
Ignorance finds an easy ally in various elements of popular culture, such as the spectacle of reality TV, further encouraging the embrace of a culture in which it is no longer possible to translate private troubles into public concerns. On the contrary, reveling in private issues now becomes the grounds for celebrity status, promoting a new type of confessional in which all that matters is interviewing oneself endlessly and performing private acts as fodder for public consumption. Facebook “likes,” lists of “friends” and other empty data reduce our lives to numbers that now define who we are. Technocratic rationality rules while thoughtful communication, translated into data without feeling, meaning or vision, withers. Lacking any sense of larger purpose, it is not surprising that individuals become addicted to outrageous entertainment and increasingly listen to and invest their hopes in politicians and hatemongers who endlessly lie, trade in deceit and engage in zombie-like behavior, destroying everything they touch.
Of course, the confessional society does more than produce its own private data storm and exhibit a narcissistic obsession with performing publicly the most personal and intimate elements of the self; it also allows one to flee from any sense of moral responsibility or genuine friendship. Moreover, it is complicit with a surveillance state in which, as Zygmunt Bauman observes “social networks offer a cheaper, quicker, more thorough and altogether easier way to identify and locate current or potential dissidents than any of the traditional instruments of surveillance . . . A true windfall for every dictator and his secret services.”The reign of ignorance now produces a flood of discourse that clouds understanding and offers up disingenuous politicians and anti-public intellectuals who constantly interview themselves as they move through diverse media sites. Under such circumstances, evil becomes banal or commonplace, as Arendt pointed out, setting the stage for fascism when it becomes difficult “to imagine what the other person is experiencing.” That is, a society of ignorance that idealizes obedience and embraces a culture of cruelty and oppression has moved dangerously close to the kind of total moral collapse that gives rise to authoritarian regimes.
It does not seem unreasonable to conclude at this point that critical thinking as a mode of reasoning is nearing extinction in both the wider society and the sphere of public schooling and higher education in the United States. Stanley Aronowitz has written that critical thought has lost its contemplative character and “has been debased to the level of technical intelligence, subordinate to meeting operational problems.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reactionary reforms being pushed on public schooling. President Obama’s educational policies along with the Common Core curriculum created by Bill Gates-funded consultants are devoid of any critical content and reduce pedagogy to the dictates of instrumental standards alone. Education subjected to endless empirical assessment results only in a high-stakes testing mania – a boon, of course, for the test industries, but a devastating loss for teacher and student autonomy. In this instance, student achievement and learning are reduced to data that are completely divorced from “the inequalities of race, class and educational opportunity reflected in . . . test scores.”
Under the auspices of quality control, the cult of data and high-stakes testing becomes a signpost for empirical madness and number crunching run amok. “Teaching to the test” more often than not results in miseducating students while undermining any possibility of expanding their sense of wonder, imagination, critique and social responsibility. Left unchecked, instrumental rationality parading as educational reform will homogenize all knowledge and meaning, as it becomes a machine for proliferating forms of civic and social death, deadening the spirit with the weight of dead time and a graveyard of useless testing pedagogies.What does this have to do with the suppression of historical consciousness and the death of politics in the broader culture? The answer becomes clearer when we analyze the relationships among critical thinking, historical consciousness, and the notions of social and self-emancipation.
If we think of emancipation as both a mode of critical understanding and a form of action designed to overthrow structures of domination, we can begin to illuminate the interplay between historical consciousness, critical thinking and emancipatory behavior. At the level of understanding, critical thinking represents the ability to step beyond commonsense assumptions and to be able to evaluate them in terms of their genesis, development and purpose. Such thinking should not be viewed simply as a form of progressive reasoning; it must be considered in itself as a fundamental political act. In this perspective, critical thinking becomes a mode of reasoning that, as Merleau-Ponty points out, is embedded in the realization that “I am able,” meaning that one can use individual capacities and collective possibilities “to go beyond the created structures in order to create others.” Critical thinking as a political act means that human beings must emerge from their own “submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled.” Not only does this instil a sense that they must work with others to actively shape history, but it also means that they must “escape” from their own history – that is, the history which society has designated for them.
As Jean Paul Sartre writes, “you become what you are in the context of what others have made of you.” This is a crucial point, and one that links critical agency and historical consciousness. For we must turn to history in order to understand the traditions that have shaped our individual biographies and relationships with other human beings. This critical attentiveness to one’s own history and culture represents an important element in examining the socially constructed sources underlying one’s formative processes. To become aware of the processes of historical self-formation initiates an important beginning in breaking apart the taken-for-granted assumptions that legitimize social injustice and existing institutional arrangements. Therefore, critical thinking demands a form of hermeneutic understanding that is historically grounded. Similarly, it must be stressed that the capacity for a historically grounded critique is inseparable from those conditions that foster collective communication and critical dialogue. In this case, such conditions take as a starting point the need to delegitimize the culture of neoliberalism and the socio-economic structure it supports, particularly what might be called a pernicious notion of instrumental rationality, with its one-sided emphasis on mathematical utility, numbers, data and the cult of the empirical.
Schools play a crucial, but far from straightforward, role in reproducing the culture of ignorance and instrumental rationality, though they are not alone as the popular media in its traditional and newer digital formats have become a powerful educational force throughout the culture. Furthermore, the mechanisms of social control – such as high-stakes testing – that increasingly characterize school life are not new developments, despite what their proponents would claim for them. They are rooted in the modern conditions that have functioned to transform human needs as well as buttress dominant social and political institutions. Put another way, the prevailing mode of technocratic and instrumental rationality that permeates both the schools and the larger society has not just been tacked on to the existing social order as a recent innovation. It has developed historically over the last century and with particular intensity since the end of the 1970s; consequently, it deeply saturates our collective experiences, practices and routines. Thus, to overcome the culture of instrumental rationality means that educators, artists, intellectuals and others will have to construct alternative social formations and worldviews that transform both the consciousness as well as the deep vital structures of schools and the larger American public. Put bluntly, education and the changing of habits, consciousness, desires and knowledge must be viewed as both an educational task and central to any viable notion of politics.As a pedagogical challenge, progressives of various ideological stripes might engage in the political task of making power visible by raising fundamental questions such as: What counts as knowledge? How is this knowledge produced and legitimized? Whose interests does this knowledge serve? Who has access to this knowledge? How is this knowledge distributed and reproduced in the classroom and wider society? What kinds of social relationships are being produced at the level of everyday life in schools, the workplace and other sites and may parallel or disrupt the social relations in the wider society? How do the prevailing forms of public pedagogy and empirical methodological frenzy serve to legitimize existing knowledge and practices?
Questions such as these, which focus on the production, distribution and legitimation of knowledge, values, desires and subjectivities, should be related to the institutional arrangements of the larger society. Moreover, these questions should be analyzed as part of a larger understanding of why so many people participate in their own oppression, why they accept the values of an authoritarian society, and why they are willing to embrace as common sense the cutthroat values, practices and policies of neoliberalism, regardless of the misery caused by its malignant blend of social austerity and unchecked casino capitalism. In other words, these are questions that should provide the foundation for engaging the educative nature of politics as it disseminates its messages through all those cultural apparatuses that are actively engaged in producing subjectivities amenable to the dictates of an authoritarian society. It is important to recognize that these questions can help teachers, students, young people, workers, artists, intellectuals and others to identify, understand and generate those pivotal social processes needed to encourage the American public to become active participants in the search for knowledge and meaning – a search designed to foster, rather than suppress, critical thinking and social action.
Central to such a culture of questioning is the necessity to address the fact that the cult of instrumental rationality in the United States has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship. It has nothing to say about what institutions should achieve to support democracy, and why they too often fail. Instrumental reason erases the crucial question of how knowledge is related to self-definition and weakens the ability of individuals to raise questions about how knowledge works to secure particular forms of power and desire.
While it is true that critical thinking will not in and of itself change the nature of existing society, engaging in an intellectual struggle with the death-driven rationality that now fuels neoliberal capitalism will set the foundation for producing generations of young people who might launch a larger social movement. Such a movement will enable new forms of struggle, and hopefully a new future in which questions of justice, dignity, equality and compassion matter. The relationship between the wider culture of instrumental rationality, commodification and privatization, and the wider practices of public pedagogy is, in essence, a relationship between ideology and social control. The dynamic at work in this relationship is complex and diverse. To begin to understand that dynamic as a pedagogical and political issue is to understand that history is not predetermined, but waiting to be seized.
The culture of instrumental rationality has undermined the critical nature of the civic and the political, reduced education to a narrow focus on mathematical utility, weakened the democratic purpose of schooling and other institutions, and undermined the role of educators, artists and other cultural workers who are engaged and critical public intellectuals. Given the importance of education in and out of schools in providing the formative culture necessary for students and others to develop the capacities for connecting reason and freedom, ethics and knowledge, and learning and social change, progressives must reclaim education as an emancipatory project deeply rooted in the goal of expanding the possibilities of critical thought, agency and democracy itself.
Such a task is about reclaiming the Enlightenment emphasis on freedom, reason and informed hope as well as engaging education as a crucial site of struggle, one that cannot be frozen in the empty, depoliticizing ignorance that supports an oppressive culture of instrumental rationality. Near the end of her life Hannah Arendt argued that thinking is the essence of politics because she recognized that no politics could be visionary if it did not provide the foundation for human beings to become literate, critical agents. Thinking is a dangerous activity, especially in dark times like the historical moment we currently inhabit. But, for Arendt, what she called “nonthinking” is the real peril in that it allows tyranny to take root, and history to repeat itself again and again. She wrote:
And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking, ne pas reflechir c’est plus dangereux encore [not thinking is even more dangerous].
No democratic society can survive with a configuration of power, institutions and politics dedicated to keeping people ignorant while exploiting their needs, labor, desires and hopes for a better future. Dependency and vulnerability are now viewed as a weakness, even as the public services and public servants that might alleviate people’s distress are defined as gratuitous costs by the neoliberal state. American democracy is losing ground against an onslaught of neoliberal forces in every realm, not only in the realm of politics. As historical memory is erased, critical thought is crushed by a sterile instrumental rationality under the guise of mass information and a data storm. The formative cultures and institutions that enable individuals to learn how to become critically engaged citizens are being eviscerated. If unchecked, neoliberal barbarism will strengthen its dominance over everyday life, and the transition into authoritarianism will quicken. The way out of this conundrum is not to be found in the use of data-gathering technologies or in an uncritical faith in the expansion of new digital and social media. Neither will it be discovered in a callous retreat from compassion and social responsibility, or in reliance on a depoliticizing instrumental rationality.
It is only a rebirth of historical memory that will enable the merging of dangerous thinking, critical knowledge and subversive action into a movement capable of reviving the dream of a future in which the practice of radical democratization prevails. Memory work is dangerous, particularly to those defenders of tyranny such as Cheney, Kristol, Rice and other warmongers for whom the politics of forgetting is crucial to their own legitimation. When such anti-public intellectuals have returned to the national spotlight in order to revel in history’s erasure, it is time to make trouble and to hope, as Herbert Marcuse once stated, that “the horizon of history is still open.”Wait, before you go…
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