Right-Minded Electricity, Anyone? How conservatives think modernity may destroy America or save It in proper doses.

An ad in the conference hotel lobby for Tusk, a web browser for conservatives that launched in 2022. The elephant, carved in Thailand, was originally placed in the Hotel Anatole in honor of the 1984 RNC convened in Dallas to nominate Ronald Reagan for re-election. (Photo by John Griswold)

The Moms for Liberty booth at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference held in Dallas, August 4-7, 2022, had an old-school purpose—to display the kinds of books the women believe should be banned from classrooms.

Denton County (TX) Chapter Chair Rhonda Hurst showed me copies of Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, a novel about a school shooting; Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe; Push, by Sapphire; Flamer, by Mike Curato; and Call Me Max, by Kyle Lukoff, which the American Library Association calls “a sweet and age-appropriate introduction to what it means to be transgender.”

Hurst told me these and many other books her organization considered inappropriate had been used by ISDs (Independent School Districts) in Texas, even though some contained pornography, she said, which she defined as “more than elementary kids should be reading.”

Jackie Bessinger, Chair of the Travis County, Texas, chapter of Moms for Liberty speaks with conference attendees. (Photo by John Griswold.)

Jackie Bessinger, Chair of the Travis County (TX) chapter, also staffing the booth, said, “In terms of the books…there’s got be boundaries. Schools need to put education first: math, reading, writing. And if anyone wants these types of books, they should stay in a public library. There should be boundaries when it comes to what kids are being taught. This is not a First Amendment right, either…because there’s no education[al] purpose, and they have sexual content that should stay away from the public school system, even the charter schools. […] There have to be boundaries….”

Rhonda Hurst said if she went out and tried to give one of these books to someone in the hallway at the conference, “I would be arrested for trying to peddle kiddy porn.” In the same voice in which she had insisted to me that Moms for Liberty was not a conservative organization, she added that families could of course do what they wanted at home.

I asked how she reconciled that with the claim that the books were child pornography. She blinked but repeated that parents could do whatever they wanted within their own families, and gave the example that, in Texas, kids of any age can drink alcohol in a bar if a parent is with them and allows it. She was pleased at my surprise.

But I did understand. The women believed in absolute freedom to enact their own personal and parental beliefs, as well as in a machinery of controls for the community that would hew to their personal and parental beliefs. It was a standard tautology of power, used across the political spectrum, and Ms. Bessinger’s repetition of the word “boundaries” reinforced that Moms for Liberty intended to watch the gauges and throw the breaker.

I would not have thought of technology in this—books as little machines made of words, books as a technology of the fifteenth-century—except that after I had thanked the women, Ms. Hurst began to speak passionately about digital devices, such as tablets, used by children in classrooms. I did not follow her shift from content to publishing platform at first, but it turned out to be about boundaries too.

The women believed in absolute freedom to enact their own personal and parental beliefs, as well as in a machinery of controls for the community that would hew to their personal and parental beliefs. It was a standard tautology of power, used across the political spectrum, and Ms. Bessinger’s repetition of the word “boundaries” reinforced that Moms for Liberty intended to watch the gauges and throw the breaker.

Classroom devices are being used by the Chinese through some sort of blockchain technology, she said, to data-mine our children and develop profiles of them. “They want to be sure that our children don’t get into the schools that they want—that’s the American dream—so they can force them to be ditch diggers,” she said.

The kinds of books children check out, as well as most of their other activities, are tracked all along the line, she said, which is the Chinese way of controlling America. The Chinese are in our classrooms and “everywhere else,” she said.

 

•  •  •

 

It is there in the name, after all: conservative. A belief in the traditional; averse to change. Technology, however, strives to innovate. Here is the start of a clash of values.

What’s more, a University of Washington study shows that more than half of MAGA Republicans—CPAC belongs to MAGA and the “Ultra-MAGA”—are older than 65 and retired. There is a reason for the trope, going back to VHS players and answering machines and continuing with smartphones, social media, and the digital princes of Africa catfishing their savings, that older people often are not early or entirely successful adopters of new technologies.

Add to that the unknowability, the mystery, the magic of digital technology. (Claw hammers and the wheel are not the technologies inspiring ambivalence.) There were already complaints in my youth about “computer chips” preventing amateur mechanics from fixing their own cars. Now there are “smart” toasters and rice cookers with fuzzy logic. Artificial intelligence can win an art contest or make revenge porn. Cameras are in nearly every public and private space, and no way to know if their shiny glass eyes are awake, like a networked Argus. Even those who teased their elders for being out of touch with social media were shaken by Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook hearings.

These are the new trope-memes of technology, created and shared with cynical, grim-smiling weariness: the selling of our preferences and decisions to corporations; the ad for rubber duckies that appears in your feed a few hours after you say “rubber duck” in a call to a friend; the constant reporting of our locations by pocket confidantes-turned-informers. Many sober tech managers and gearheads keep a dot of tape over their laptop lenses.

Even those who teased their elders for being out of touch with social media were shaken by Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook hearings.

How big is the threat to individual privacy, rights, and freedom from digital technologies? It is like asking what, exactly, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency will do, in its enormous new facility in St. Louis, with “400 commercial and government relationships” and thousands of employees, that the NSA in its million-square-foot complex in Utah does not already.

What do the Chinese want with us?

More than 85 percent of MAGA supporters believe “our lives [are] controlled by secret plots.” It sounds crazy because the plots enumerated, such as Pizzagate or the birther movement, turn things into toxic cartoons or racist fantasies. If a reality-based populist emerged who could explain in simple language how we are actually caught in systemic, often harmful, webs beyond our ken, we might see that paranoia can sometimes be a surfeit of caution.

Technology changes how we think and do things, often in unforeseen ways. Only sixty-one years ago the first human being was shot into space. Only fifty-eight years before that, someone flew the first airplane.

What’s your hurry? old-timers used to ask us kids, both joke and conservative complaint.

 

•  •  •

 

Trump as Rambo cardboard cutout for photo ops at the Patriot Mobile booth. (Photo by John Griswold.)

Until recently, the Republican Party’s other unshakeable belief, parallel to individual freedom, was that business was good. Entrepreneurship and growth would best be promoted by hands-off capitalism; the entire society was said to profit by it. Technology was another such opportunity, and the changes it would bring were welcomed, as far as they could be imagined.

President Ronald Reagan spoke to Moscow State University students during his summit with Gorbachev in 1988:

 

“Standing here before a mural of your revolution, I want to talk about a very different revolution that is taking place right now, quietly sweeping the globe without bloodshed or conflict. Its effects are peaceful, but they will fundamentally alter our world, shatter old assumptions, and reshape our lives. It’s easy to underestimate because it’s not accompanied by banners or fanfare. It’s been called the technological or information revolution, and as its emblem, one might take the tiny silicon chip, no bigger than a fingerprint. One of these chips has more computing power than a roomful of old-style computers.”

 

He went on to extol “how information technology is transforming our lives” by doing manual labor for us, “forecasting weather…mapping the genetic code…aid[ing] the design of everything from houses to…better and faster computers [and] help[ing] Michael Jackson produce on one synthesizer the sounds of a whole orchestra.”

Because his speech was also a polemic against communism and Soviet bureaucracy, he said, “The key is…freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of communication. [E]ntrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution.”

If a reality-based populist emerged who could explain in simple language how we are actually caught in systemic, often harmful, webs beyond our ken, we might see that paranoia can sometimes be a surfeit of caution.

More recently a deep ambivalence about technology has developed for many conservatives in those very areas: thought, information, and communication.

In 2019, James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute, the prominent conservative thinktank, asked Tyler Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University, about Facebook, Google, and growing skepticism about big business—even, almost unthinkably, about the capitalist project.

“I think there is a very legitimate privacy concern about tech,” Cowen said. “I don’t think it has to do with a particular company or a particular monopoly issue. Put simply, digital life is recorded in a way that real life is not. I do think we should address this with the law.”

But, he adds, “[T]he companies themselves, they’ve been the best American companies. […] I want to keep our Big Tech companies healthy to compete against China abroad and not have the attention of the CEOs distracted by antitrust suits or having to do regulation and public relations for the rest of their tenure.”

“Big Tech is often typified as the best example of where the American economy just has gone off the rails,” Pethokoukis says.

Three years later, at CPAC Texas 2022, “Big Tech” did not refer to the search algorithms of Google, the hardware of Apple, the software of Microsoft, or even the business practices of Amazon (much) or Tesla. CPAC speakers and their audiences had Facebook and Twitter in mind, because Donald Trump, who so successfully used social media for fundraising and pronouncements for years, was banned after the deadly January 6th riot and breach of the Capitol. Many others were put in Facebook “jail” or had their Twitter accounts suspended for amplifying vile or false things the former president or any number of MAGA politicians or pundits said, and they took it personally. (Trump has cultivated that emotion for years. When he was impeached in 2019 he Tweeted to his base, “In reality, they’re not after me they’re after you. I’m just in the way.”)

This year Pew research shows that 95 percent of conservatives believe “social media sites likely censor political views,” and 71 percent of Republicans say “major technology companies favor the views of liberals over conservatives.” The definitions are part of the problem. “Views” are meant to be co-equal with facts: half of Republicans believe “the left” led the violence on January 6, and 70 percent think Joe Biden stole the election in 2020. Both are lies initiated at the top.

CPAC speakers and their audiences had Facebook and Twitter in mind, because Donald Trump, who so successfully used social media for fundraising and pronouncements for years, was banned after the deadly January 6th riot and breach of the Capitol.

This is, in a sense, the Moms for Liberty issue writ large: an expectation that the layer of controls exerted on a commercial technology used by the entire nation should hew to the personal beliefs of a minority of individuals.

For the record, in a House Committee on the Judiciary meeting in April 2018, titled “Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms,” Ranking Member Jerrod Nadler (D-NY) said, “The notion that social media companies are filtering out Conservative voices is a hoax, a tired narrative of imagined victimhood as the rest of the country grapples with a feckless President and an out-of-control administration.”

Berin Szóka, President of TechFreedom [“We’re bullish on the future: for the most part, it’ll be great—if we let it.”], testified, “I often hear Conservative groups complain about the bias of social media platforms, but from what I can see after a decade in this field, their real problem is that they just do not use social media well. And let us face it, the young people who use social media best and reshare it most eagerly are overwhelmingly leftwing. This is not the fault of Facebook, Google, YouTube, or any other platform. It has just always been true.”

 

•  •  •

 

Distrustful of (some) digital technology, yet resentful of the power others might gain by its use, CPAC attendees were asked almost nonstop to consume “conservative” or “alt-tech” technologies.

In the hours-long general sessions each day, in a ballroom with thousands of chairs, flashy, high-tech displays showed video ads between every speaker or panel—for The Right Stuff (“a dating app for the right wing”), Tusk (“The Freedom-First Web Browser developed exclusively for Conservatives”), Parler (a “free speech” clone of Twitter), FourSure (“a powerful remote control for the content you already share” so you “Don’t get hacked or canceled”), and other tech companies.

Candace Owens, who was married in 2019 (at the Trump winery) to George Farmer, CEO of Parler, was shown in a recorded video several times a day saying she wished she could be at CPAC, but she was either about to give or had given birth to their second child, and she wanted to tell everyone the good news about Glorify, an online company she was involved with, where they could go for professional design help and not “give your money to the corporations” anymore.

This is, in a sense, the Moms for Liberty issue writ large: an expectation that the layer of controls exerted on a commercial technology used by the entire nation should hew to the personal beliefs of a minority of individuals.

The brazenness of these pitches to a willing-captive audience was overwhelmed by the oddity of some of the companies.

As I noted in a dispatch at the time, a company called Space View advertised heavily in the sessions, and in fact was the highest level of event sponsor, two rungs above Fox Nation. Their ad reminded conference-goers to stop at their booth just outside the door of the ballroom, in the exhibit hall, and try on the virtual reality (VR) headset they had designed for use in a metaverse, “to constantly generate the ‘sense of unity and solidarity’ of the conservatives online…. [T]he basic principles of conservative will be instilled in the young people who will lead the country in the future, furthermore [sic] the unity of the people, and will enhance the power of the nation. We believe that CPAC Metaverse will be the system infrastructure for building a better society.”

Space View is a company of the Japanese Conservative Union, whose chairman, Hiroaki “Jay” Aeba, is a regular at CPAC conferences and cofounder of CPAC Japan. He spoke on the first day of CPAC Texas.

 

Hiroaki “Jay” Aeba, chairman of the Japanese Conservative Union, speaks with One America News, a far-right network dropped this year by its carriers due to legal and contract problems. (Photo by John Griswold.)

 

Aeba was, formerly, the political leader of Happy Science, “a Japanese cult run by a man [Ryuho Okawa] who claims to be the incarnation of multiple Gods while pretending to channel the psychic spirits of anyone from Quetzalcoatl to Bashar al-Assad to Natalie Portman,” an expert told VICE News last year. (Okawa has also written several books with titles such as Trump Shall Never Die, about speaking with the “guardian spirit” or subconscious of Trump.)

As I looked around, Donald Trump was on the monitors in the simulated reality, and I found I could move down and stand next to the interviewer on the stage.

The Space View VR headsets consisted of a heavy ocular device with straps that went over the head, and a small mouse for the right hand. Mahmood Al-Imam, a data scientist at Space View, helped me try it. He said the prototype they were developing was “a simulation of the whole CPAC 2022,” which they chose because it is “one of the biggest conferences” in “North America and the world.” One of their main goals, he said, was to show that the metaverse was like Facebook and Twitter “but more than that.” He said they chose a dot-earth URL because they used to focus on sustainability and remote sensing from space, and that the company, which is based in Singapore but whose CEO, Junichi Kato, is also Japanese, had “a paradigm shift” last year, creating “a new vertical, which is exploring the universe.”

It took him a minute or two to get the device turned on. Al-Imam explained that eventually it would let users physically walk around in a way corresponding to the virtual space. (Because the company did not want users bumping into other conference attendees, I could only point and click to jump to different spots in the visual field.) Eventually I would be able to interact with other remote users (for now inert audience-members sitting on a tiered platform), listen to speakers, and interact with AI bots. (In the prototype, avatars of women in red shirts, one of which spoke to me about opening up political spaces.) As I looked around, Donald Trump was on the monitors in the simulated reality, and I found I could move down and stand next to the interviewer on the stage.

It all worked okay for me, but it reminded me of the huge number of Facebook ads I get for new tech such as electric bikes, and how you can tell by looking at them that most will not make it.

A 20-year old who tried the Space View headset described it to me as “janky” and “decade-old crap.”

 

•  •  •

 

Another tech company in the exhibit hall, steps from the Moms for Liberty booth, was Patriot Mobile (“Mobilizing Freedom”), a cell service company that operates on the Sprint network. They had a lot of real estate around their booth and plenty going on. Cardboard cutouts of Trump as Rambo, or Trump dancing with a Bald Eagle and flag, served as popular photo ops. Big MAGA names (Ben Carson; Lauren Boebert; Ted Cruz and his pastor dad, who leads Bible study groups every week at Patriot Mobile HQ) held book signings there.

The weirdness of Patriot Mobile lies in two things not normally done by cell service providers. The first is that the company knowingly cuts off more than half of potential American customers with Christian nationalist branding.

Patriot Mobile CEO and cofounder Glenn Story spoke on a CPAC panel called “Making Woke Go Broke” with Parler’s George Farmer and Ace Specialties’ Christl Mahfouz. The Patriot Mobile logo appeared on a long dress worn onstage before a general session by “Christian artist” Natasha Owens, who sang pitchy songs from her album American Patriot.

The weirdness of Patriot Mobile lies in two things not normally done by cell service providers. The first is that the company knowingly cuts off more than half of potential American customers with Christian nationalist branding.

Most companies believe that if you make, say, toy blocks that snap together to make buildings, vehicles, and figures, you should stay out of political conflicts to maximize sales. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is known for “progressive” corporate values, but they temper it a bit at their site with “nonpartisan” wording. Patriot Mobile’s all-in plan is more like the equivalent of Mel Gibson shifting from the Lethal Weapon franchise to the Passion of the Christ. 

The second thing Patriot Mobile does that most companies do not is engage in overt corporate activism for highly contentious causes. “Our mission is to passionately defend our God-given, Constitutional rights and freedoms, and to glorify God always,” their site says and lists a wide array of Christian and conservative organizations the company supports, including CPAC, Turning Point, the NRA, Holy Ghost Ministries, and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

(Whether either of these oddities affect the cost of their service, I do not know, but their website shows I would pay 2.5 times more for my family of four users than I do with my current carrier, and get less data.)

When CEO Glenn Story spoke with Steve Bannon on a streaming broadcast from CPAC, he crowed that Patriot Mobile “took over four school boards” in Texas with Patriot Mobile Action, a PAC that spent $600,000 pushing the idea that sitting board members were woke ideologues peddling critical race theory.

“The school boards are the key that picks the lock,” Bannon said, almost sounding as if he thought conspiratorial was a very good thing indeed.

 

•  •  •

 

The third tech company I visited in the CPAC exhibit hall was Volta Wireless (“Stop Big Tech Tracking Your Every Move”). I spoke with David Sinclair, founder and CEO, who said Volta is a “privacy-focused mobile provider” that replaces providers such as AT&T or Verizon, and offers “unlimited talk, text, and high-speed data, with coverage in more than 200 countries, and no one’s going to be able to track your location, your identity, your communications, or your activity on your mobile phone.”

Volta had launched only at the end of March. Sinclair said they have “more than 2,000 subscribers” but are “growing by leaps and bounds. We hope to get to 10,000 subscribers by the end of the year.”

“I won’t name a specific name,” he said, “but there’s a mobile provider at this event today, and all they do is rebrand the service” from one of the “three big operators…AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile,” “add their margins on top of it, and resell it. And they say, ‘Oh, we donate a dollar from your subscription every month to conservative causes.’ That’s not true differentiation.”

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is known for “progressive” corporate values, but they temper it a bit at their site with “nonpartisan” wording. Patriot Mobile’s all-in plan is more like the equivalent of Mel Gibson shifting from the Lethal Weapon franchise to the Passion of the Christ.

He said, “[Y]es, we use the towers from ATT and T-Mobile in the US—we have agreements in place with 800 operators around the world—but we’re only using their towers. We have our own core networks, and so we’re doing our own secure communications so no one’s going to be able to hear what you’re saying or track what you’re doing.”

The price for the service, according to a promotional deal currently on their site, is about 1.6 times my current plan but is, according to the company, completely secure, which neither my provider nor Patriot Mobile offer.

(If, like me, you doubt you need such security, have a look at this article in theGrio, which shows that police across the country have been using “an obscure cellphone tracking tool…to search hundreds of billions of records from 250 million mobile devices, and harnessed the data to create location analyses known among law enforcement as ‘patterns of life,’ according to thousands of pages of records about the company.”)

Sinclair told me they have also launched their own VPN (virtual private network, an encrypted connection from a device to a network) so no one can track customers’ Internet activity, as well as their own payments platform, Volta Private Payment System, since Cash App, Venmo, Apple Pay and other apps are “collecting all your financial transactions,” Sinclair said. Two months ago, Volta began to sell its own private phone, “based on Android, but it’s completely de-Googled, so no one is able to use your phone’s operating system to track anything you’re doing.”

“[I]f you have an Apple phone, that phone is sending information on you back to Apple, on average, fifty-two times a day,” Sinclair said. “If you have an Android phone, it’s sending information back to Google 14 times an hour. That’s more than 350 times a day.”

“Our big belief is you should be able to use your mobile phone to share information to communicate with the people that you want to,” he said. “So we’re step-by-step building out the platform to be able to shut off each of those ways that other people are tracking your information.”

 

Takeo Hiramatsu, Chief Technology Officer, at the Space View booth in the CPAC exhibit hall, showing how their VR headset works. Space View is a company of the Japanese Conservative Union. (Photo by John Griswold.)

 

He said he was not allowed to disclose the name of the company that makes the Volta phone, because it is “a supplier to most of the NATO countries’ military and intelligence agents for secure communication devices” that makes them “at a secure manufacturing facility in a European country that’s NATO-based.” He said it is their first consumer product. (The Volta Private phone is $599, the Volta Private Phone Pro $799. This seems to be in line with other Android phones for sale on the market.)

Sinclair said he had worked for IT companies, a mobile operator, and other high-tech companies, and “used to run systems integration outsourcing business across 10 countries for HP.” For twenty-three of the last thirty years he worked outside of the United States, in Russia, South Africa, Israel, Latin America, and Asia, “doing work for governments and large national companies.”

“When I moved back to the States I thought, fantastic, I’m in the Land of the Free,” he said. “I can say and do what I want and not worry about some local security service trying to follow me everywhere. [But] I was more surveilled in America than I was outside the US! [T]hat was when I was like, enough is enough.”

“Today the big issue is with social media, and everybody trying to fragment society so much that we’ve lost that trust. It’s become an us versus them society.”

“I’m a big believer in the free market,” he said. “I’m a big believer in people’s freedom and individual freedom. But with individual freedom comes individual responsibility, and so I think we need to build a society where everybody’s taking responsibility for their own actions, where when we go and engage and talk with people it doesn’t matter where they’re from, what their political beliefs are, we look for the common ground. […] Because you have to build a certain level of trust between each other if you’re ever going to find compromise.

“Today the big issue is with social media, and everybody trying to fragment society so much that we’ve lost that trust. It’s become an us versus them society. [A]ll of that is built on Google or Facebook’s ability to collect your data…to build a model of your psychology…to get [your] eyeballs focused on [their] platform [to drive] advertising. [T]hey keep eyeballs focused by getting you riled up about stuff. [B]y getting everybody riled up against each other…that’s adding money to their pockets. But it’s not benefitting society.

“[T]he fuel for their engine is your data. […] That’s really the background of how I came up with Volta: I got tired of being tracked all the time, and I realized that what they were doing with that data was destroying society, in my opinion.”

 

•  •  •

 

There is a thread running through American history of our emotional reactions to technology. When I was a kid, the excitement over the space race was tied to the Cold War that had us ducking under our desks at noon. (We cheered Apollo and feared Sasin.)

Back-to-the-land hippies of my youth are similar to homesteaders and tiny-house devotees now; survivalists in the ’70s were parents to today’s preppers. All have been fearful of a changing technological society.

Steve Bannon interviews Kari Lake, who announced at CPAC she had won the Republican primary for Governor of Arizona. (Photo by John Griswold.)

From pride in Reagan’s computer chip to worries over its destruction by EMP weapons, our imaginations are captured, selectively, by technologies, and our reactions added to the thread. Right and left are no different in this. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that the wings of political movements join hands in common paranoia, while the great middle majority try to live their lives calmly and rationally while understanding they are caught up in forces beyond their understanding, let alone agency.

Conservatives have succeeded wildly in recent years with some technologies of “thought, information, and communication.” Fox News, says Pew Research Center, “holds a unique place in the American media landscape, particularly for those on the ideological right. While Democrats in the United States turn to and place their trust in a variety of media outlets for political news, no other source comes close to matching the appeal of Fox News for Republicans.”

Alt-tech ventures often seem to be brought down by the worst qualities of the MAGA movement they intend to support, such as a desire to cause inflammation in the body politic, and taking intractable forms to get what they want without compromise. They also violate two core beliefs of conservativism, for now, often still touted: community as a good, and business for its own sake.

But Truth Social, Donald Trump’s alternative to Twitter, has sputtered along for less than a year, underused and underdeveloped, and now may be done for. Parler has had many problems and will return to the Google Play Store only on September 9th, a year and a half after being banned for inciting violence on January 6th. A former IT manager told me he knew Truth Social would never work, and Parler is doomed, because users would only find identical voices at those sites. At least Facebook created the drama of conflicting viewpoints, he said, unknowingly echoing Volta’s David Sinclair.

Alt-tech ventures often seem to be brought down by the worst qualities of the MAGA movement they intend to support, such as a desire to cause inflammation in the body politic, and taking intractable forms to get what they want without compromise. They also violate two core beliefs of conservativism, for now, often still touted: community as a good, and business for its own sake.

It does no good to transfer anxiety over the boundaries of technology by banning books and fearmongering about the Chinese. We need serious people, if we hope to live in a land of the free and home of the brave, and not in some ganglia of sore views informed by the guardian spirit of Q.

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