Bits of the sociological imagination at work
March 5, 2020
Researchers are citizens too – some with a sociological imagination
Like everybody else, social scientists are citizens. We live a private life and a professional life and there is a tradition-based rule of thumb that the two should be kept apart in writing – like: ”Oh, the things I experience in my private sphere are just small issues that probably only I have encountered; my scattered everyday observations are not interesting or “scientific” so I ought not bother others with them.”
But wait! Isn’t it part of a social scientist’s writing to be concrete, build on empirical facts and observations? To tell how it really is also on the micro-level – also when s/he does not attempt to develop big explanatory theories around such unsystematic observations or try to prove something empirically?
Isn’t it important to observe and think and share even though it is not scientific in a hard sense? I have come to believe that – sometimes – it is. Sometimes the small scattered everyday experiences may tell us something about our times, even our civilization.
By that, I build on a classical social science thinker, Wright Mills, who in 1959 published his hugely important book, “The Sociological Imagination.” Read a short presentation of it here. I think you will like it…
What I focus on in this article is:
Could it be that scattered everyday micro-events add up to something bigger, something indicative of a trend – the micro that is the macro-in-the-making? And the macro that is in the micro?
Concretely: Why do we frequently experience that social services, corporations and institutions fail both in terms of technology and personal service? And what may it tell about our times and our space/society – right now and for the future?
o o o
Some examples of micro breakdowns
I live in the university and high-tech town of Lund in southern Sweden, a modern highly developed country (although no longer a development pioneer).
Below I share some of my experiences and observations at the micro level from the last few months. You may read just the first couple to get the flavour and skip the rest:
Story 1 – Train service
I take the train over the bridge to Copenhagen Airport to catch a plane. No reason is given but the train doesn’t stop at the airport but takes us to the next station and we – about 300 people with luggage aiming to catch our planes – are told to get out and wait until a train comes in the opposite direction and will take us back to the airport station.I’ve learnt now to always choose a departure 2 or 3 trains earlier than I would according to the time table simply because you can never be sure that the train you choose – be it to other destinations or that airport – will arrive according to schedule. Up to about twenty years ago, Sweden’s trains were known for their punctuality and good service. No more so.
(SJ – Swedish Railways and Öresundstågen – Oresound Train Service).
Story 2-3 – Postal service
I lived for a week in a flat in London; the morning mail dropped down on the floor around 9 AM. In Sweden, it arrives around 3-4 PM and never on Saturdays of course, that was long ago. And now, to get a letter to Stockholm the next day – or hoping to – you’ll have to put it in the mailbox before 1 PM, it used to be five hours later.
There has never been so little snail mail and it has never been so expensive and never been so slow.
(Post Nord, Sweden)
I was recently sent a parcel from Norway. It took 8 days before I could finally pick it up. It had been rotating at the same conveyor belt but registered by the tracking system as already delivered to me. I spent at least 2 hours in total retrieving it – no apologies by any at the so-called service department or those who obviously had not caught its continuous rotation. (Post Nord, Sweden)
Story 4 – Router and telecommunication
The router in our house stops working although it is not even two years old. I had to spend 7 hours altogether, reporting the failure online, not being able to send a mail because the company does not want you to send complaints – and sitting in telephone queues of up to 200+ people before me. When the failure was finally registered, they sent me a new cable without the router; next, a modem arrives with a cable that did not fit and a repairman finally comes only to tell that it was an outdated cable, and then a third one arrived that did make the modem start – only to cause the telephone connected to it to die…
The company then told me that quite likely a third type of cable would work instead – but insisted on charging me if the repairman should pay a visit once again…
Story 5 – Paying a pay road toll in France
I drive through France and arrive at a pay toll: Although Mastercard is one of the accepted cards on the – only-French-language – info, it refuses to take my card. I wait with lots of honking cars behind until an only-French-speaking lady comes and tells me that I cannot use that card and must pay cash. She forgot to tell me why – and why, if so, Mastercard was shown on the info as one workable option. No apologies either.
Story 6 – Nothing works at an airport
I arrive by plane with Japanese friends from Northern Sweden to Malmö Airport (Sturup) in southern Sweden and find that the taxi phone is out of order, that the local money exchange machine doesn’t work for them, neither their Japanese Yen nor any of their credit cards. Mine did – but what if my friends had been on their own? And no one there in the evening to talk to.
Story 7 – Misuse of credit card
Recently, I rented a car, got a stone shot on the windscreen and how does the company deal with it? Well, they send me a bill not only for the car rent but have added on it, directly, the costs of a new windscreen – without documentation and without asking me. They could have chosen any sum and it would be theft since I haven’t accepted the use of my credit card for anything but the rent. When I protest, they send me the original invoice and tell me that since I am causing problems, they will have nothing more to do with me, a client for quite a few years.
(Sixt in Lund, Sweden).
Story 8 – Change of rules for boarding plane – with threats
I travel by plane from Venice to Copenhagen and from Copenhagen to Basel – both times a rude lady orders me to abandon my cabin bag (smaller than most and much smaller than the allowed size as well as many other passengers’ cabin bags) to put it among the checked-in luggage.
But I do not want my computer and camera with equipment to be travelling there – and out of my care – and at low temperatures. I kindly ask them on both occasions whether they could ask someone else who might volunteer. No! – is the only answer
I am told that I have to abandon it on their order, that I have accepted this when I bought the ticket online and that I will be prevented from boarding if I don’t carry all those things in my hands instead. When I once again appeal to the women to try to find a volunteering passenger instead of me, she calls a colleague and asks her to call security to physically prevent me from getting on board if I do not obey promptly. Had to carry those items in my hands, not even a plastic bag provided.
Story 9 – Many stories of support departments simply not working
To lots of companies, you can no longer write an e-mail or call when some piece of technology doesn’t work. You get to one of those FAQ and if your issue isn’t answered, then – well then, what do you do? It can take weeks before anybody answers explaining in the best of cases that they are – right now, these very days – so extraordinarily busy. Usually no apology and never an economic compensation. And with every one of them you get an answer from a new person every time who has manifestly not read what the issue is about and repeat that you should just do this or that which has already been found to not solve the problem. Brilliant waste of the client’s time!
In one case, a mail service suddenly doubled some of my address lists (I guess not on purpose but by technical failure) and charged me double – arguing that it was a connected company that had done so (on their server?)
(Sendible, MailChimp, iContact, Nimble, to mention a few).
Story 10 And there are the banks!
When a couple of years ago I was planning a fact-finding mission to Syria, my bank told me that – contrary to what I’d always done – I could no longer order a cash amount a few days before and pick it up. The bank now cooperated with a security company and it could take up to two weeks before it would bring the cash to the bank – actually from 15 kilometres away and, btw, the price for this would be around US$ 35! It was my own cash, right?
I asked politely why I, as a customer for over 30 years, had not been informed by email or a snail mail letter about this change. After all, it is not that many who take out larger sums in cash anymore. The answer was that it was my fault because it’s been announced in the local press (which admittedly I seldom bother to see).
Recently wanted to take out money from my personal account. I had to go to an ATM and accept a limit allegedly to prevent money laundering. But I do not want to be treated as if I was a criminal so I complained and asked where I could visit an office and talk to a person. The answer was that I could go to two offices that would still give me cash in hand from my own account – one 700 kilometres away, the other 990 kilometres away (!)
I try to cash in a cheque from a supporter of our foundation. The young employee in the bank where the foundation has had its account for more than 30 years looks slightly embarrassed at me and say: ’Please wait, I have to ask my boss how to cash it in and enter the sum on your account.’ The operation took about 5 times longer than the woman or man I used to do business with in that bank the preceding decades and who would have been ashamed of not knowing how to cash in a cheque.
Story 11 – Flight delays
And what about flights? I recently lived for a few weeks in Venice. I had three friends visiting from various cities in Europe. All the six flights in and out were delayed for more than one hour.
Story 12 – Telephone queue systems that don’t work
Last time I called my insurance company I was number 249. When I got through, I was told that I would probably get a more informed answer at another department and I was then transferred – only to be lost. Another looong queue…
Tons of telephone queue systems simply do not work. A method increasingly used now is that a voice tells you that there are too many before you and… ”please call again later and thank you for your call!”
(Folksam Insurance, Sweden).
And, dear reader, how many times have you tried to book a flight online and things went bananas and/or your payment did not get through although you did everything correctly? Or you were charged the same sum twice? Filled in a form on an online platform only to be told that it can’t be saved, contains ’errors,’ etc.?
Story 13 – Taxis in Lund, Sweden and in China
A little story about the decay in my town: I arrive in Lund where I live after 6 weeks travelling around entirely on my own in China. Everything has worked perfectly there – trains, flights, ticket reservations, no queues anywhere, my WeChat app, ATMs, etc – although English is still a problem for an ignorant person such as I who do not speak Chinese.
It’s Sunday morning at 7 am and I get out of the Lund Central station only to see lots of litter all over – and no taxis. I call my company and they arrive slowly (in contrast to the Chinese system, I can not follow its position – but OK).
The driver doesn’t have a clue where the street I am going to in this relatively small town is. His GPS doesn’t work and neither, btw, does his taximeter. He suggests a price I know is way too high and I suggest a lower price which he grumpily accepts. Having arrived at my home address, I want to pay him but I need a receipt – but he has no paper or pen, shouts that he doesn’t want my money and slams the door. I had probably taken a taxi about 50-60 times in China and not once been treated unprofessionally or rudely. And they all took me to where I wanted to go without my help
(Taxi 12 12 12).
Story 14 – Lost luggage
Oh yes, you have tried that too! Arrive with my wife on a direct flight from Nice to Copenhagen airport on a Friday afternoon but the company that handles the luggage has gone on strike. However, the display tells that our suitcases will be there in a few minutes – still 6 hours after the strike had started. The luggage handling firm has no one on duty but in a phone call I am told that it is not responsible, the flight company is. Long story short: although knowing that the two suitcases were at Copenhagen and not somewhere else in the world, these two companies together managed to take 10 days before delivering them at our address. No apology. I could turn to some EU arbitration mechanism if I was not happy.
(Norwegian (flight) and Menzies Aviation (luggage handling)
These types of events happen more frequently and steal more of my time than such things did, say, 20 or 30 years ago. Modern technology should make our lives easier and processes more smoothly, right? Sadly, over time human trust has eroded.
In addition, virtually everyone treats you more or less rudely – concepts like kindness and service not part of their company’s vocabulary.
- Such events create bad human relations – negative energy.
- As a client, one gets irritated at some kind of technical and/or human malfunctioning. And I admit I get angry and not very polite when I feel treated like cattle and there is no competence, no regret and no real wish to help out.
- They cause a lot of lost social time and lower our expectations and rights as consumers.
- During the many hours we spend getting things to work properly, getting through to final problem-solving (or finding another provider), time is lost for more productive work – not only for me but for all of society. Must be counted in the millions of dollars per day in a country like Sweden.
- We are losing trust in each other. We are giving up. Find private solutions…
- We lose genuine human relationships and instead play roles. We start out a conversation with the latest – bad – experience in mind: ”I can hardly trust these people either…”
And, as a point of its own: We have created a society with less sense of peace and more psychological, sociological violence. A society where you have to fight, sometimes raise your voice, a society where frustration levels and anger increase and tension has to be released – well, on whom?
The more the sociological infrastructure disintegrates, the more normlessness and “anomie” we’ll experience, the more “everybody will be fighting everybody else.”
In today’s world, I now know that there is, at best, a 50/50 chance/risk that the service or product I have already paid for will work in a reliable manner over time. And the chance of getting through to somebody who is really competent and service-minded is about 5 in a 100 – no matter what I am trying to get done and irrespective of the fact that I have already paid for a service.
What may explain such experiences?
• One answer is the average age of staff – in the sense of too little education and human/social experience.
There is nothing wrong with being young but the type of experienced person who knew his or her profession, the product or service offered and had wider skills – and commitment over the years to his or her company – now belongs to history.
Most people you get in contact with are in their 20es and simply cannot know their trade as well as those with 10 or 30 years of client service experience and professional knowledge about their brand and its products. And with age comes other problems (see below).
• Modern technology only works if both you and the manufacturers are competent.
We used to think that modern technology would make lives easier for us all They do but also they don’t.
And it is not that I am illiterate about those technologies. I’ve been using computers since the mid-1980s and followed the developments step-by-step, I know and use tens of software programs and methods and handle about 15 Internet sites and blogs (some built by myself), social media, mail services – I use these systems much more than most in my age category (I am 69). And I do it every day. I’ve always been curious about new possibilities and learning enough to be in command.
But when something simply doesn’t work, I do feel lost – as I guess anyone does. I don’t have time for all this amateurism, malfunctioning and sheer lack of service, not to mention lack of politeness and kindness when it happens. Perhaps I switch to another company/provider with some hope based on all the promises on their homepages. Only to experience a deja vue later.
• Service and personal care is gone
Today, it is much much more difficult to get anything fixed, repaired of even diagnosed than, say, 20-30 year ago. Virtually all companies, corporations, banks and authorities offer much less service than before – indeed organise their sites in such a way that you feel unwelcome. And they have closed down the office, or shop, you could go to down the street to in the past.
In short, corporations, as well as larger public institutions, make it as difficult as they can so that you – the paying client or citizen – gives up. Mind you, most of the cases above belong to the category where you’ve already paid for service or product and the service around it. And most of the providers behave as if they couldn’t care less.
It’s become an unkind, colder and less caring – and more violent – society.
• Short-term employment contracts without commitment.
Much has to do with the fact that most people feel no unity/loyalty or solidarity with or commitment to the company in which they work.
They work to get paid, not to be proud of being one of many who makes that company better and better day-by-day. They are not remunerated for caring – if and when they do – and they have employment contracts for just a few months and never know whether they themselves are to be laid off soon. No wonder they don’t care, I can’t blame them. Their job isn’t fun, motivating or providing any personal growth; rather, it is filled with negative energy – also, admittedly, from clients like me who complain.
Who could feel proud of her- or himself in such a situation – in that type of business?
• Neo-liberal economics
Money rules. It’s not first and foremost about contributing goodies to make society better and citizens happy, it is about money – about profit-making. It’s all about getting a new company up and running as fast as possible and make a nice facade (homepage, for instance) for it and then throw a new product on the market, often way before it is tested and known to be functioning well.
I have experienced this several times and in a few of them, I have been able to squeeze out of a CEO that – yes – they launched our product on the market before it was tested sufficiently; but the investors wanted us to launch it fast, prematurely.
Also, Sweden used to have a mixed economy; the state was running postal services, road building, railways, schools etc. With all-penetrating neoliberal market thinking and privatisation, there is only one goal: Make money the fastest and most brutal way. No society, East, North, South or West will endure such destruction and egoistic anti-society behaviour for long.
• The structure – or, perhaps, non-structure – of privatisation and profit centres.
Swedish train services are now based on lots of different companies – some serving the coffee, some maintaining the rails, some delivering the electricity, some the signals and some other company maintaining and cleaning the train cars etc. And they behave as if they’d never heard words such as co-operation and coordination or shared competences. And what has become the general results of such fashionable de-centralized management and profit-maximization? Whenever you call somewhere or complain about an out-of-function technology, you are told that it is somebody else who is responsible, and – sorry – there is nothing we can do to help you. You must contact that other who is really responsible.
No one has a complete overview anymore. Systems have become too big. And this blame game that no client wants to hear about is the first line of defence everywhere. It is never: ”Yes, we have caused the trouble and we are truly sorry. We’ll fix it pronto and compensate you for your loss of time as a small token of our appreciation of you being our customer”.
The same applies to, say, mass mail companies and their relations to social media such as Facebook. Or to my bank that can only tell me that I will have my cash within two weeks because it is now not the bank but a security company that brings it to the bank (from 15 kilometres away – meaning they move now that cash about one kilometre a day).
So, instead of having a Swedish Railways (Sveriges Järnvägar, SJ) that integrated all the functions in one efficient central transport management system under state leadership – and served the people with pride – you have numerous different companies which, to bring you to your destination in time, should work together as one integrated organism. But they don’t and you pay the price: delays, unpredictable arrivals, bad mood and loss of social, productive time.
They are all profit centres with short-term existence and maximum profit-seeking and, so, the victim is the citizen, the clients. That is, society as a whole.
Where do you go when your national train service is lousy and never departs or arrives according to the schedule and cannot even provide sleepers, restaurant cars or serve reasonably good coffee anymore?
Right, you give up. You don’t expect it to work properly. You take note of it with a surprised smile if the train for once actually brings you to your destination on time.
• Loss of education, skills and competence
We have lived too long with too little education, people knowing too little about their trade – people who shift jobs too often to ever feel committed, competent and proud of what they do.
The best educational systems at least at the primary and secondary levels is no longer Western. It’s Chinese and Vietnamese, some – Western – reports tell.
It’s become more or less comme il faut for students to read short pieces only, secondary literature, read fewer pages per week than a few decades ago where books were still the main source of knowledge – and could contain comprehensive materials about an issue. The complex concepts and theories explaining our complex society as well as the long argument are all – yes, gone.
Today’s attention span in between smartphones and social media disturbances is shorter than ever. There are tons of information but comparatively little knowledge, i.e. organised knowledge. There are much fewer students who pursue academic fields such as philosophy, theology, social sciences, humanities in general – whereas they are queuing up for any education that can be used on the market.
We have created a poorer – an almost post-literate society in the name of progress. It’s anything but progress, it’s regress.
• The systems have grown too big to be managed by humans
A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Today’s weakest element is human beings and organisation. For long, there has been this idea that building bigger and bigger units, collapsing one corporation after the other into gigantic conglomerates with hundreds of thousands of employees scattered all over the world – would be more efficient, rational. It was thought that bigger and bigger would reduce relative administration costs, rationalise daily operations and serve the clients better.
From a sociological perspective, we always knew that that was a dubious hypothesis. But the corporate world’s capitalists, of course, didn’t listen. At some point, I guess, every system loses effectiveness and its people lose overview and control.
What can a CEO of a corporation that employs hundreds of thousands of people around the world feel and be de facto responsible for? How many friends can you and I have – really friends that we are able to care for, stay in contact with or cooperate meaningfully with?
We humans have limitations. Disregarding them means turning into irresponsible robots or to delusional self-aggrandization: I can do everything because I am the top guy I am.
Some may believe that thanks to new technologies, we can now manage systems of a size that we could not dream of managing earlier. There is the belief that computers with special software bring us together in new ways – and, yes, they do. But can you respond to emails from 5000 people a day? Can you give even 500 decent attention and an answer? I struggle with can from 25 to 100 a day.
What is the human capacity for meaningful and reasonably efficient interaction? We should discuss it much more because, at the end of the day, humans, organisation and management for the common good is the bottleneck in today’s society. It’s not the machines per se.
When sheer organisational size causes us to lose overview, management and control, responsibility is abdicated. We delegate and then we blame somebody else for malfunctioning at some lower level in the organisation.
If to that problem you then add that top-level leaders in state and private organisations often have incredibly high salaries and are rewarded by golden parachute agreements and bonuses – only to make income differences even wider inside the organisation and also in society at large – you’re beginning to operate the impossible society. Simply. The society built on mirage assumptions and lack of understanding about how societies – whether Gesellschafts or Gemeinschafts – actually operate. And what makes them fall apart.
And the overall solution is…? Merge already over-sized organisations with even more (over-sized) units and make the sum total even more … impossible.
What speaks against the above reasoning?
There are two spheres in which corporate and public management usually work better than what I have described above:
In the early stages, when they try to sell their products and services to you, they work brilliantly. Kindness, professionalism and great promises of services abound.
When it comes to charging you for these products and services – auto payment, invoices, etc – it works every time. While the state and municipality fail to deliver services and infrastructure, does it ever fail to cash in your tax money?
Did you ever feel how the whole atmosphere changed when you had bought a product or a service? Suddenly the provider and its staff became very difficult to contact.
Have you ever thought of the similarity with the political world where, after the elections where the candidates promised you Paradise, they suddenly talk about other things, twist what they promised into something else and do things differently from what they promised during their campaign?
A coming breakdown?
I’ve presented a series of trivial, small and seemingly unimportant problems one may encounter in an advanced Western country that used to function well. I don’t pretend to have stated anything scientifically valid. But I do ask – as a citizen and observant social science scholar: What is happening to modern society?
My answer is admittedly both simple, speculative and biased – based on observations of what I believe to be a consistently worsening trend: Today, lots of technologies, services and human operators, perform sub-standard and totally inefficiently. They cause serious waste of societal resources and human potentials.
I tend to see it as an integral part of societies breaking apart and breaking down. Of not only a partial crisis but a systemic crisis – a kind of social system fatigue. We usually say that we have or are in a crisis. Perhaps we should say that we – the Western world – is a crisis. Or, as my friend, peace researcher Johan Galtung once quipped: Perhaps the Occident is an Accident…
What I have talked about above is also about social cohesion and responsibility that is gone because of a series of other factors – basically structural factors inside modern capitalism.
The putty, if you will, without which no society can stay cohesive, or integrated, is drying up, cracking. Bits and pieces are falling around.
And the system is exactly what we are supposed not to talk about. We are supposed to deal with symptoms and piecemeal adjustments to make a failed system operate a bit more smoothly. We are supposed to avoid thoughts about a deeper, radical change in the one-and-only system.
Remember 1989? There was only one type of society left, it was the only one possible and therefore the best. It should be imposed on everybody else and – lo and behold – history and ideologies had come to an end, said Fukuyama.
That goes a long way to explain why there are no real longterm visions in the West anymore, no discussion of large systemic reforms, extremely little future thinking in academia and – tons of doom and gloom pertaining to the present.
Societal visions are about big integrated longterm thinking (mind you, not forecasting). To develop a vision of the future and struggle for it requires a basic acknowledgement of one fact: that things can be done differently and that our system can become better in various respects.
Being in denial about malfunctioning – micro or macro – prevents innovation and new thinking.
If you think you live in the best of all possible systems and there is nothing more to improve, you will stagnate. You’ll lose curiosity and stop searching, re-searching and learning fundamentally new things.
That’s when the wake-up call comes…
It’s no wonder, therefore, that the West – or the US/NATO/EU countries – fight both themselves and everybody else, see everybody else as real or potential enemies and navigate today’s world by threats, intimidations, warfare, sanctions, embargos, demonisations, fait accompli, pressures of various kinds and … all in all, emit tremendous and constant negative, or destructive, energies:
“Thou shall not believe that there are alternatives to the way we do things!
Thou shall not have other Gods – other inspirations, ideologies and ideas!
Thou shall not succeed if you try – and if you seem to do, we shall stop you. There is a Bible, yes, and there is a Sword!
The West/Occident has succeeded in many ways since 1945, and it still has the strongest economic and military power. But it has stopped being humble and learning from and being inspired by others. Because we, as the so-called First World, by definition had nothing to learn from others. Our ways of thinking were universalizable. We taught – mastered – others all the time. We didn’t bother to learn from them.
If you believe you are Number 1 in a ranking order, you do not learn from No 2 or 33. You teach. If you are No 33, you’ll likely try to figure out how those 32 did better than you. You’ll become creative, you’ll struggle and work hard to move upwards.
Ours is no longer a well-functioning society where we all draw on the same collective vision for the common good of all. We don’t pull together and we do not feel enthusiasm for any vision. We struggle in a permanent, visionless crisis management chamber with a minimum of leadership responsibilities – and rather much of the awfully dangerous combination of the market’s Invisible Hand and political governmental Kakistocracy spiced with militarist self-aggrandisement and grumpy bullying. And we’ve become clever at persuading ourselves that everything is fine.
It’s an increasingly atomised society with an emphasis on individual gain, private solutions to what is genuinely societal problems and a manifest lack of leadership, vision and responsibility for the common good of humankind.
In this age of early globalization, our time and space perspectives have diminished instead of expanded: There is less and less macro-time or longterm thinking – but a lot of fast gratification and profits. And there is more and more of the narrow space called Nationalism – high over globalisation and the sense of oneness with the earth and transitioning to a better future.
Our relations to Nature is characterised by ongoing, systematic exploitation and pollution based on an anthropocentric worldview.
It has been known for about 65-70 years that, sooner rather than later, we would have created an unsustainable global system, one that would in part or as a whole develop in such a way that it would become beyond repair. Regrettably, democracy and overall societal dialogues could not provide the necessary change towards sustainability and balance, or partnership, between humans and Nature. But the West still tries to export that failed, or immature democracy, to other countries and cultures.
Albert Einstein’s simple and wise words that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” represent an essential truth of our time too.
This is an existential or civilisational Western crisis. And if you do not see it in its macro perspective – thanks to fake and omission and collective denial – you may encounter its micro features increasingly often. Like I have.
Micro and micro: Society’s parts are in the whole and the whole is in the parts.
And, slowly but surely, it seems to me, society is falling a-part…
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