Ben Pring co-founded and leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. Ben sits on the advisory board of the Labor and Work Life program at Harvard Law School. In 2018 Ben was a Bilderberg Meeting participant. Ben was named as one of 30 management thinkers to watch in 2020 by Thinkers 50. He was recently named a leading influencer on the future of work by Onalytica. In 2007, Ben won Gartner’s prestigious Thought Leader Award. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the London Times, the Drucker Forum Report, Business Insider, Forbes, and Fortune. Based near Boston since 2000, Ben graduated with a degree in Philosophy from Manchester University, in the UK where he grew up.
John Shegerian: This episode of the impact podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States, with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.ClosedLoopPartners.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian and we’re so lucky to have you with us today, Ben Pring. He’s the Director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and he’s the author of this new wonderful book which you could see, I’ve read and marked up. It’s called Monster: A Tough Love Letter on Taming the Machines that Rule our Jobs, Lives, and Future. Welcome, Ben Pring.
Ben Pring: Hi John, grace me with you.
John: Wonderful, that we’re here together even during sort of the hopefully the ending of this covid period technology. Some of the beauty and wonders of technology, and the good parts of technology and get to bring us together to share the journey and share wonderful work that you’re doing, an important work that you’re doing in. And before we talk about your book, which is why the main reason I really was excited now, be on today. Can you share a little bit about your background? How you even got here? doing this, writing this book and, and being the Director of the Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work?
Ben: Yeah. Well, who’s being in tech John, I’ve always loved technology, kind of nerdy science fiction kid when I was growing up, you know, live long and prosper. So, I’ve always liked science fiction. I’ve always liked the future, thinking about what comes next. That’s was kind of interested me. And, so I got into the tech industry, kind of early on. When I graduated, I worked for Coopers & Lybrand, part of PWC now. And then, I worked for Gartner for many years. People probably know Gartner’s. And I was one of the first guys, in the mid-late 90s to start writing about the Cloud. If you can believe, back in the day, when that was kind of weird idea that the internet was going to be this thing BeyondPets.com.
I think about that for a long time in Gartner, then I got to know the company they work for now, Cognizant. Which is a big Tech Consulting and Services Company and then, I joined them about 10 years ago. We set up this group called The Center for the Future of Work. And, we’ve had this charter to continue to look at leading-edge tech, how it intersects with the opportunities, the challenges, our clients face, the market at large faces. And, I’ve always just been writing about, a new technology, thinking about, how we can optimize for it. And we’ve written some books about AI and Big Data, stuff like that.
And this new book, as you say, it’s kind of looking slightly at a different angle of it, particularly in this pandemic period. Whereas you say, we’re all kind of kept working, kept connected through the cloud, through the internet. But we can also, I think if we’re honest, and we’re open and kind of not too myopic about things, begin to see some of the challenges with a lot of this Tech that really is completely central to the way we work, the way we live, and we wanted to kind of, look at that little bit more rather than run away from it, and ignore it and pretend the issues, the challenges aren’t there. We wanted to kind of steer into that a little bit and think about that. And again, offers some advice, guidance, hope, and recommendations, that how we can leverage this book for good and, not become a swamp by the downside.
John: You’re right. And everything else is that like you say, all the great things on this planet also have downsides. So there’s no reason, technology should be excluded from that conversation. So that’s why I’m so glad you wrote this book. It’s called Monster, it’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other great book stores. I’ve read it. As you can see, I always mark up what I’ve read. I’ve written in the book and also put my stinky pads. I’ve read a bunch of questions and I really want to start off with, you know, then is how you call technology is. The monster, the name of your book. A monster that we can’t yet tame. Can you explain what you mean by we can’t yet tame?
Ben: Yeah. Well, we’re not saying that anyone, particularly technology is a monster itself. But I think if we look at a lot of the way that technologies are sort of combining, interacting, and the cumulative effect of them. We can see that, increasingly there is sort of monstrous outcomes, you know, think about what’s happening in social media with kids. And the way lot of kids getting addicted to their phones, to be right mind the whole time. They can’t comment, they can’t call look up anymore. They can’t sit at the dinner table and have a conversation. That’s kind of monstrous.
And then, you think about trolling, body dysmorphia, and FOMO: fear of missing out. [inaudible] online life that a lot of people living now. That’s I think monstrous, really. When you think about it in a political context, you know, the sort of algorithmic, rabbit holes that people have gone down in the last few years which would lead to a sort of just a craziness. Which sort of burst out into the real world, and January the 6th in DC. I mean, that’s monstrous, what’s going on there? Think about disinformation, that’s kind of monstrous Think about what’s going on in the whole cyber warfare space. Where you know, just this week we’re seeing. This thing is uncontrolled and that’s what we were really worried about. But, you know, we’re not calling out social media or AI, but it’s the combination that we can begin to see a sort of going off the rails a little bit. And that’s the idea of the monster that we’ve got to take in that. We’ve got to pull back.
John: That’s so interesting. You know, and what I love about your book, is how you frame up the problem, but you also give solutions which we’re going to get to later. Truly you’re a business inside of you. Spent your life in Tech. You know, like you said, you shared your history at top of the show. Why was it so important for you to talk about it? And almost, you know, be self-reflective on an industry that you’ve enjoyed and been very successful in and others seem to be, I’m pushing away from this tight kind of tough topics.
Ben: Yeah, in a way, we didn’t really want to write this book. It’s not the sort of, you know, Tech evangelist people like us, who are, you know, always extolling the benefits of technology.
Ben: It’s particularly want to deal with. I mean, it would in a way be better if we kind of ignored this. But, we felt a responsibility, to be honest with you, John. I mean, in the first line of the book that Paul who’s my co-author, for Oregon I wrote, the first line is, we love technology. And as people who love technology, and people of goodwill, we want to see used technology, used for good. And that’s what concerned us, certainly, in the last few years as we were out on our travels, talking to our clients, talking of events was that increasingly, the questions we’re getting from our clients or from an audience was, you know, what about AI’s impact on jobs.?
What about data’s impact on a kind of surveillance economy as it’s being called? What about the role of cyber insecurity in the modern world? And all of these negative kinds of questions in a way or questions that came from a place of concern. These were the questions that people were putting to us. And so, as I said, we would have been easier in a way to kind of, run away from that and continue to write the next book about something upbeat and light and easy. But, this was the book we felt compelled to write because again, in that spirit of wanting Tech, to make the world a better place, hashtag tech for good. We felt like, we’ve got to take a timeout. We’ve got to ask, some difficult questions to come up with the answers, with the recommendations, with thoughts on how we keep this going in a good direction. And we don’t continue to seem in the direction we go in the moment. Just kind of, frankly, onto the sidewalk, onto the edge of the road.
John: We are in many ways, as you say, untethered at this point and getting worse. You talk a little bit, a lot about in the book Solutions, and, I want to break down the different various levels of solutions. As we know, the government could be for good and they could be lead on solutions for any problems that exist in society, business, the same. And people could take control of their own hands. So let’s start, from a business perspective. As we can see, everything that’s happened during this pandemic of the social changes that are being called for the other. The justice changes that are being called for. Business is taking a real big lead on, of course, governments involved. But, a business can move quicker than government and transcend government. Talk a little bit about, what you and Paul, well outlined in your book. Great book, Monster the role of Business Leaders, with regards to, technology better serving society instead of being the controllers of society.
Ben: Yeah, business is has a big role to play. You’re absolutely right, John. And in a way, I mean, this is part of the issue, that technology and commercial leverage of technology, is moving much more quickly than government. You know, the makers of the rules if you like, businesses have moved so quickly to leverage this technology and they’ve been incredibly successful with that and, you know, fair play to them. But, business leaders, I think, have a real responsibility to use this technology, intentionally. With real thought about it, rather than kind of doing it in a haphazard, unthinking way.
And data, the use of data, the leverages date of data is probably the greatest sort of competitive asset that many businesses have now. And data is this incredibly kind of mysterious thing, which again, can be used for tremendous positive advantage. But also, we can begin to see, use for ill as well. And so, you think about data. Data is the key to personalized service. If you liked this book, you’ll like this book. If you like this movie, you’ll like this movie. If you like these shoes, you like Bozo. That personalization experience that we all like, that technology that does that, is the same technology that’s creating this surveillance-based economy that we’re moving into, increasingly. Where people are being kind of, frankly, creepy in the way that they’re following you, following me, following us, all. Trying to sell to us, trying to understand this, trying to know us in ways that we perhaps are not comfortable being interacted with.
And so again, a lot of businesses have gone down this road. It’s like this incredible fire hose, fire hydrant, that they’re just trying to hold on and they’re not really thinking about, how do we do this in an intentional way. So, that gives to get the ratio between us, our customer, our client benefits us both and we don’t kind of sleepwalk into this Orwellian world.
Ben: A lot of people are very anxious about, Brad Smith. The president of Microsoft. Last week, I think two weeks ago, said, the only thing that all well got wrong, was the timing. It’s not 1984, it’s 2024. That we’re sort of sleepwalking into this world, and a lot of that is because we’re not intentionally thinking about that. These pistons we built, the data we use, the experiences we offer. And again, that’s what we’re saying in the book but business leaders, need to be intentional and to think about, what they’re doing here. Because we’re kind of at a Crossroads. This is a very important time in human history. You know, not being too subtle melodramatic about it.
John: It is. Yeah.
Ben: Well, when there’s one path we could go down, and it’s going to be very hard to reverse, back out of that. And again, this is the moment for us to be thinking about these so, the tradeoff between personalization, surveillance, jobs, AI, automation. All of these issues are really mission-critical for a lot of business leaders and the decisions that business leaders make. I mean, they’re going to be decisions that they, and their companies, and their shareholders have to live with for a very long time.
John: For those of us who just join us, we’ve got, Ben Pring. He’s the co-author of this great book called, Monster: A Tough Love Letter on Taming the Machines that Rule our Jobs, Lives, and Future. I’ve read it, it’s an important read, given that we’re all surrounded now by technologies that we both love, and have come to lean on, and live with. But that could also become monsters if abused. Ben, you talk in your book about, communities dividing us among new borders called, Splinternet, in close. And that’s a word I’ve never seen before. Explain what you mean, to our listeners and our viewers of what you mean by the word Splinternet, and how communities have become divided?
Ben: Yeah, well I think, you can see this at both the kind of macros geopolitical level, John. And also as you say, the more kind of community-based level, I mean at the macro level, the idea is that the internet, the original internet was kind of, largely, an American invention that where it’s helped a little bit, but it’s largely an American buying. And in the last 25 years of the internet, going from just this “curio” to being this thing that’s taken over the world. I mean, it’s basically being run on the kind of American principles, American rules, very hands-off, very laissez-faire, very light hand on the tiller.
Fast-forward to 2021. And you can see, that the European view of the internet, the European view of data is very different from the American view. And so, you have things like GDPR.
Ben: Right now, the regulation about how to manage cookies and how to manage consent, etc. And then in China, you begin to see a completely different regulatory framework there. And people talk about this phrase of surveillance communism. You know, this very tightly controlled, government control, top bound controlled, use of the internet. And so, the original internet is sort of splintering into three different types of internet. And hence, the phrase, the Splinternet. And so again, in a business context and particularly for big multinational companies that I work in, we work with cognizant works with a lot. This is a real issue because they’re basically going to have to create three different versions of the internet, running three different regulatory sets of rules to be able to operate around the world.
And again, you see, a lot of American organizations in China, having to completely re-engineer how they operate in China. Completely re-engineered their policies around privacy to be in China. And so that, original American internet is sort of morphing. And then at a more macro level, again, this is the notion we touched on of the algorithm and some algorithm echo chambers, that people are increasingly living in. You sort of because, the algorithm says that if you like A, you’re going to like B. And if you like B, you’re going to like C. Begin to wall yourself into in intraset. But, people begin to drift off from any sense of sort of, so shared reality of any platonic reality that we all can believe in. And this is the whole notion of fake news.
And then, bad actors want to spread disinformation into these algorithmic rabbit holes. And at the bottom, you see these people kind of, ending up in this weird world of queuing on. And then, they come into the real world where there are crazy Viking hats and try to storm the capital. And again, that’s the splintering of reality, because technology is completely central to everybody’s lives. And in this rabbit hole that you’re in, the world that you’re in that subjective world that you’re in, that’s your world. And that’s totally different from the world that you’re living in, that I’m living in. but, most sane people are living in. And again, we can ignore that. We can think it’s funny but, it’s having real consequences in the real world. And again, many of them are monstrous.
John: It’s so well said. It’s fascinating the way you frame it up and that, they are living in a mindset. They’re only informed from what they’re following and they get so cordoned off. And these are some people that I love and adore as, a human being. But they seem to be fully brainwashed, and can’t even reach them anymore with regards to-
Ben: No, what we all seeing is that you know, strange uncle or cousin or some friend from back in high school. Posting pictures of everything they eat, and it’s like what the hell’s happening here. This is just bizarre. And again, the algorithms, which are just completely neutral pieces of code. [inaudible] do, is to find things that if you like that, you’re gonna like this and the second, they find it any heat, then they put nitroglycerin on it, and it blows up. And that’s the whole kind of incentive-based model of this system. And again, that’s wonderful if you like American food. If you like the bills, and you want to see lots of information about the bills, that’s right. But, when you begin to see quite how untethered a lot of people are, from the real world.
John: So true.
Ben: And again, I think we’ve got to think about how we deal with that. Because, that’s just going to continue to go on and on and on and on and on, and the consequences of that are going to get more and more meaningful, more material, more real, day by day. I think.
John: You know Ben, one of the great parts of your book is, some people write books and you get through the book, and it explained all the problems that we have and you finished a book, and you close it, and you just feel hopeless, because you don’t feel like there are any credible or opportune solutions for the problems that were just laid out in front of you. Even though the problems could be laid out very eloquently and even frankly brilliantly. You’ve done the opposite, you’ve laid out the issues in the problems, and then, you also laid out solutions. I want to go through a couple of other sections of solutions that you talked about, that really interested me.
Legislatively speaking, you talked about regulations that could come and help rain in some of these issues that you’ve already well-articulated. Can you talk about the repealing of section 230? What does that mean? Age limits, and also abolishing online anonymity. why those three, are some of the solutions you’ve given legislatively that can be done?
Ben: Yeah, well section 230 mean, there’s a lot of debates in the media, in policy circles, political circles about this. And it’s a bit of a kind of hot potato frankly, for people who know what that is. That was regulation legislation that was put in place early in the sort of development of the internet, to allow publishers in essence platforms, to not be liable, legally liable for things that were published on their platforms
Ben: As opposed to a TV station or a newspaper. If somebody goes on the air or somebody prints something in the newspaper and said, something crazy, incendiary, or derogatory, then the publisher can be held responsible for that. Section 230 prevented that, in the internet spear. And I think, those [?]logic for that in 1994-1995. Again, this strange thing, the internet, then we didn’t know really what it was. We didn’t know what it was going to be. It was kind of a tiny little kind of Acorn that we are planting.
Ben: Fast-forward. 25 years, this little Acorn is now the biggest oak in the forest. It’s the ugliest thing in the world. And, to imagine that we can now hold those platforms to the same lack of standards that we had back then, I think is illogical now, because they are publishing platforms, in the same way, that NBC, took a standard of decency for what people can say on the air. The New York Times has held to a standard of decency from-
Ben: -people publish on that. Twitter, all of these platforms are the same. So I think the notion of repealing 230, having these publishers, with then incentive to basically clean up their own platforms and stop the craziness, stop the indecency, stop all the awful things that you can just see it, you know, casual.
Ben: Every second of every day, to stop that happening. This will give them an incentive to do that, we believe. The second one, John, you introduced was the notion of an age limit-
Ben: -for social media. And, we’re suggesting that kids under the age, 18 17, we’re not first whether it’s 17,18 shouldn’t be able to go on social media. Because think about it, we don’t allow kids, 13 or 14 years old to drive. We don’t allow them to smoke. We don’t allow them to drink. We don’t allow them to vote. We don’t allow them to get married, to join the army. We put these incredibly powerful technologies, and the most powerful technologies, man has ever created. In the hand of a thirteen-year-old, we stand back. I’ll let them get on with it. And then we see the craziness that’s going on, and we see the bad habits that they are introduced to, that they learn, that they see marriage from adults in the real world. And we think again, that there’s nothing wrong, per se was social media. We’re not trying to ban it. We just trying to say, it’s inappropriate to put into the hands in an unsupervised way of immature people.
And in the same way, that we train a young person to drive a car, lessons in the classroom, you know, out in the road with an instructor. We should train people to use these technologies, these powerful technologies so they don’t end up killing themselves or hurting somebody else. That’s the kind of model, the metaphor, in terms of having a social media user license that you have to pass a test and can be revoked if you speed or you drive drunk, that license can be revoked. So, that’s the second idea. And then the third idea in terms of anonymity, again, anonymity was a kind of good thing back in the early days of the internet.
Ben: It turned people to go onto these platforms. But again, in two thousand twenty-one, we can see that the notion of anonymity, is the fundamental kind of original sin of the internet. The fundamental floor of the internet. It’s the reason why that guy with the Viking hat, can just go down in this world of madness. Because they’re protected by that anonymity. Now, he really knows who they are. It’s the same sensation, that when you’re driving that car, you’re behind the screen of that car, you can go in [inaudible]. Get out the effing way. You know, because you’re anonymous in that space, you would say things, and you can say things that you wouldn’t say to your neighbor face-to-face. You know, when they know who you are.
So again, I think if we abolished, got rid of anonymity, people, you’re not interfering with anyone’s right to say anything. So, First Amendment impingement here, you’re just basically signaling the people that, you have to own what you say online. In the same way that, you would own what you say if you go to your local golf club, or into your local political party, or you go to the supermarket and [inaudible] you own what you say. And I think, making people own what they say online, will go a long way to tamping down, the world’s craziness. The people say it because they can get away with saying it.
John: Good point. You know, we’re having this interview today and the G7 is going on. And in your book, you refer to the shifter global economic powers from the G7 to a new call D7. Can you explain what you mean by D7?
Ben: Yeah, again, I mean the G7, the people know like he’s saying by singing UKL this weekend
Ben: The UK, America, Canada, France, Japan, etc. Those countries kind of represent power in the post-world war II era. They represent the big countries that the powerful countries of the past. If you were recasting the G7 today, based on power and influence around the world, no disrespect to my Canadian friends or my French friends and I don’t think you’d have France and Canada. They’re in the modern G7. We’d have China, we’d have India. We think the D7, the digital seven is kind of a reflection and where power is today, because really the big fault line, the big sort of tension, geopolitical tension which again, is all around technology and control of technology. You know, Vladimir Putin famously said, the country that controls AI, is going to control the world.
The D7 is a sort of reflection of the fact that the world now and 2021, is very different. And we need to create those sort of same institutions, like the UN for the modern world,
Ben: Like, reflect power in the modern world and have a responsibility and create a platform, in which we can mediate things like the Splinternet that we were talking about earlier on.
John: That’s a great point. The UN manages the internet political world. And really, what’s going to fill that void then? to become the UN of the digital world? What you foresee?
Ben: Well, it’s interesting John, talking about the G7 meeting because, in fact, there’s a briefing note that came out ahead of the meeting. Which was catalyzed by the UK government. And they today, in fact, this morning and they call for exactly that, the establishment of a digitalized form of the UN to regulate these sorts of issues. We sort of call for a US version of back in our book, the establishment of what we call Federal Technology Administration. And it’s interesting to see the box of the same ideas coming out of the G7 meeting. Again, it’s completely clear that the institutions of power, both of the national energy of political international level, are sort of way behind the times.
If people know what the charger of the FTC, or the FCC in America, they don’t talk about anything. Like we’re talking about, they don’t talk about data, they don’t talk about privacy issues, security issues. And so again, we need a modern institution, modern umpire, modern referee. And we think that something like a Federal Technology Administration that would sit Supra to the FCC and the FTC. Something like that could be really important in effect, crafting the rules of the road for the information superhighway.
John: You know what? I always love to leave our listeners, and our viewers been with actionable steps and thoughts on how they could participate, making their own lives better. Because you point out in your great book Monster, these technologies that we all come to love, are as addicting as fentanyl or any other opiate or drug. How can our listeners and viewers take into their own hands before this legislation gets done? Before the digital body comes in the place that replicates the UN and manages reimagines the digital world for us and helps us, create guardrails and some of the solutions you’ve created. How can we all become part of the solution and make our lives better before government and business step in and do it for us?
Ben: Yeah, that’s a great point, John. Because, I think a lot of people had a personal individual level, a kind of standing back thinking how the government are going to solve this,
Ben: And, the government is going to take a long time to sort. And we can’t stand around waiting for them. And again, I think we all individually as parents, as leaders in organizations, as individuals. We all have agency. we are all vested in making this world we want to be in, the world we want to live in. And I think, there are two important things that we talk about in the book. But, again, and of kind of simple be the change you want to be kind of level-
Ben: -we can all axon. And one is, given that we’re talking about a very leading-edge modern technology, is ironically to remember one of the oldest rules of humanity, the Golden Rule “do unto others as you would have done unto you” I mean, it’s in every religion, throughout history that’s basically the foundation of the religion of that set of how rules, of how to live ethic light. And I think a lot of people have forgotten that. A lot of people at a personal level, at a business level, have forgotten that. People vents and say stuff online, then again, they wouldn’t say to their cousin, or their mother, or their son face-to-face. But somehow they feel empowered to do that online.
And I think people, should believe, people should remember they are in essence being what they want to see every time that they interact digitally. So, again, be intentional about that. That’s an important thing to do. And then the other thing and this is a phrase that has been around for a while, and some of your listeners probably have heard it, it’s the whole notion of the digital Sabbath,
Ben: I mean, just put the goddamn thing down. It is addictive. And I and Paul and you know, many people now I think, particularly on the weekend, I just try not to look at it so much. So tried, I tried to leave it at home. I try not to be walking around with this thing in my hand, the whole time. I can’t help thinking that, if you just kind of look at your computer on your desktop, there’s almost a time limit to that, just being in the physical chair-
Ben: -after an hour to you want to get up and walk away from it. But, because [inaudible] so comfortable in your hand, and then I sit on the couch, or whatever, you just sort of stare at it, the whole time. I think putting the thing down on a Friday or a Saturday also, and just ignore it, forget it, and get back and look at the real world. Look through the real window, not so kind of weird, your screen. Again easier said, than done perhaps a little bit kind of right and simplistic. But in a way, I thought the notion of personal agency, personal decisions, ultimately, we can’t get away from how important they are and how fundamental was.
John: You’re right. And I think, you’re so on to something so big with the digital Sabbath and in the call for more balance, you know, you mentioned for more earlier, I’m lucky, I’m very addicted to my technologies but I really don’t have formal. I have the opposite. My kids laugh at me all the time. I have something I called Jomo, the joy of missing out. I don’t care. I don’t care what’s on Instagram, or any of these other wonderful platforms. I’m just happy. I’m not part of it. And so, you know-
Ben: I think you’re right, John. And I think a lot of people celebrities, you know, a lot of celebrities and I’m saying, I’m going off social media. Where I come from, originally, the English Premier League, the soccer clubs, they have a kind of social media boycott recently, and I think a lot of people are increasing, of that stuff view that you know, I want to get away from this thing rather than be dragged down at [inaudible]. So, maybe the tide is, is turning a little bit.
John: I feel it is in, you know, frankly speaking, I’m so grateful for zoom in on all this wonderful technology. So I can continue bringing our show to our listeners and our viewers. We’ve built this up over 14 years, but frankly speaking, I’m looking forward to the day that I can meet you in person. That’s more fun, you know, that will even be more of a thrill than this one. So I just want you to know, that I think you’re so on. It’s a great thing. I want our listeners and viewers again.
If you have a chance, pick this book up, amazon.com, barns, and noble, other great book stores. It’s called Monster: A Tough Love Letter on Taming the Machines that Rule our Jobs, Lives, and Future. Get some balance. Take a digital Sabbath. There are some great solutions in here that we can all adhere to, just to make our lives somewhat better. And Ben, I’m so grateful for your time today, I’m really grateful for your book. I fully enjoyed it and I just want to say thanks for making the world a better place. And coming up with solutions. They going to make our world a better place now and in the future.
Ben: Thank you so much, John. It’s great so [inaudible].
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