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Hot Take: Fighting Fears and Fantasies of East Asia (and AI)

In this episode, we hear all about Kerry’s trip to Japan (spoiler alert: she loved it) and explore her work on anti-Asian racism and AI. Kerry explains what the very long word ‘techno-Orientalism’ means and how fears and fantasies of East Asia or the so-called ‘Orient’ shape Western approaches to technology and AI. We chat about how US sci-fi genres like cyberpunk use imagery from East and South East Asia to connote scary, dystopian futures where the ‘human’ is indistinguishable from the ‘machine’, and how this mimics old stereotypes about East Asian people as ‘mechanical’ or ‘machinic’.

[Photo: Joi from Blade Runner 2049]

Reading List:

Michelle Huang and CA Davis, 'Inhuman Figures':

Roh, D., Huang, B., & Niu, G. (2015). Techno-Orientalism imagining Asia in speculative fiction, history, and media.

Edward Said, Orientalism.

Cheng, A. (2019). Ornamentalism.



 Hello and welcome back to the Good Robot Hot Takes.

We've been on summer break and we hope you've had a wonderful summer. If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, commiserations, we hope your winter has not been too terrible. But Eleanor, what have you been up to this summer?


Oh God, nothing much. Two days ago I gave myself a stitch writing emails, which I wasn't sure whether it was normal or not.

I went on, well there was like a really romantic holiday that I wanted to do, but because I'm eternally single, I did it with a friend of mine called Michelle, who is a historian of biometrics at MIT. And we made it really romantic anyway, and it was lovely in Italy, and yeah, really cute.

What about you?


I mean, I think friend romance trips are so underrated, like I really have this dream of going on like a cozy friend romance holiday where we just sit by the fire and read books because my husband, the love of my life, is an academic who doesn't like to read, which is an interesting niche to hit and an interesting job choice if you don't like books.

So yes, this is my goal. I'm like, just need to go on that cozy cottage holiday.

This is what I want from somebody that comes on holiday with me. I want to go somewhere where we can both like work, like sit and read together. And, you know, they're there, but like, they're not necessarily saying anything like that's my, that's my dream.

Exactly. And I like, I'm like one of those people who goes to bed at like literally between nine to 10 PM. So I'm very much into that very, like, wintry vibes where everything shuts at like 4pm and you're like, the day is over, I'm gonna go bake and eat and sleep.


I'll do nightlife on behalf of the both of us.


Yes, yeah, Eleanor is a big nightlife person for anyone listening and I'm a big only awake for six hours a day person, so I am definitely not a nightlife person, but.


Yeah, I actually went and gave a talk at a festival dressed as my flamingo, Fiona.

Somebody lent me a flamingo costume, and it was a real perk. I feel like Fiona and I have become one. And actually there were loads of other flamingos at the festival, and I knew all of their names by the end.


That's so delightful. I just feel like more academic and corporate talks should have dress up themes.

Like, I think adult life just doesn't have enough dress up, in general. I think that's why, I never grew up in, like, a Halloween culture. Like, New Zealand's not very Halloween y and no one that I really knew was, like, into Halloween. But I feel like that's why it's such a big thing is everyone just wants to dress up.


And if you're listening to this rather than watching it on YouTube, you should watch us on YouTube because otherwise you can't see Fiona the Flamingo and that's very sad.

And both of us have washed our hair to be here today. So come and watch us on our YouTube channel and you'll find all our videos and hot takes there.


Absolutely. Well, oh yeah, sorry. At the beginning of this, you asked what I've been doing with my summer. And then we got distracted by Halloween and dress ups.

Not a lot of dress ups this summer, but I was in Japan for two weeks, which was hugely exciting. It was in September. It was so hot, like, uh, not very cute fun fact about me is like, I don't really sweat as a person. It's very rare. Like, but then, because it was like high 30s, super humid, you're racing around all day, like finally, I was like, I am sweating and this is unpleasant and I do not like it, uh, but yeah, Tokyo was amazing.

I was there for like a digital ethics conference. Um, and everyone who was there was absolutely brilliant. I will definitely not be invited back because I vomited partway through my presentation, my first time ever doing that, um, that was very disgusting. I got out of the room, so it was fine.

It was a bit of a lowlight. Uh, but apart from that, my trip was great. Um, so I was there discussing some of my research. I co chair this project with the global politics of AI at Cambridge. And one of the aspects of my work is I think a lot about race and racism and how that shapes AI and also the kinds of movements we see in AI development and deployment.


I'm so sorry you're sick. Like a real nightmare, it's like taking off a layer of clothing during a conference presentation, and actually you're naked. I'm sure you handled it beautifully and with a lot of grace.


I wish I asked a friend afterwards and she was like, wow, you've had like every stress dream that I've ever had about giving a presentation, you've had it in real life.

And I was like, thank you. Thank you, Becky. I really appreciate that. Um, but my stress streams are always about driving. So I'm a really bad driver. So it's always me slowly going backwards in a car, unable to stop.


Oh, really? Mine are like wild. They're on par with Tarantino's kind of hell scenes. You know, like someone's attached to a medieval spinning wheel. I'm, I'm taking the trauma, I think, hopefully on behalf of like lots of people who are having peaceful sleeps. That's my hope. So today we're here talking about a topic that is very dear to your heart.

As a BBC New Generation thinker, this was the subject that you were giving radio shows about. So can you tell us a bit more about what techno orientalism is.


Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of my work focuses specifically on anti Asian racism and AI, uh, and I like to look at that through the lens of politics and international relations because I think a lot of the scholarship and a lot of the activism that we've seen around AI and anti Asian racism has often been very focused on Like what we might call the aesthetics of AI or on these kinds of surface level representations on AI.

And what I'm interested in doing is saying, actually, how can we trace various kinds of historical forms of racism through these new technologies that are emerging? And I'm definitely not the first person to do this. There's so much amazing work in fields of scholarship, like Asian American studies and Asian diaspora studies.

That's been thinking about this. And like one term that's been really productive and helpful and thinking about this is the idea of techno Orientalism. So in 1978, the Palestinian academic Edward Said coined this very influential idea of Orientalism. And so Orientalism, uh, was a critique of how Western academics tended to perceive the so called East or the so called Orient very, very broadly conceived.

So Said was mainly talking about the MENA region, but. the location of what we think of as the East or the Orient shifts quite a lot over time and space. Um, and so, crucially, Said argues that the West tends to portray the East as backwards and feminine and barbaric in comparison to itself, which it portrays as modern and forward thinking and progressive and evolutionary.

And, Said argues that the West portrayal of the East has not that much to do with the East itself, and it has much more to do with the West's own perception of itself, right? So these myths about the East are really important for the West's own self- constitution of its identity. It needs those ideas to deal with the crises of identity it faces, and to deal with its crises of modernity.

And so techno orientalism builds on that idea. It says, okay, well, one of the distinct things about orientalism is this idea that the East is the past, right? That the East is stuck in this pre modern period. But particularly in the 1980s around Japan, we start to see a different kind of racialization. We start to see Parts of the east, like Japan, getting portrayed as both barbaric and pre modern, but also hyper futuristic.

Usually in a bad way, so places like Japan were often used to code a kind of dystopian future, but we see this kind of pivoting between past and future. So, um, Morley and Robbins coined this term techno orientalism to show how technological development and ideas of being really technologically savvy, being major tech producers, were getting entwined or bound up in.

These Orientalist ideas. And so techno Orientalism very broadly defined, we might say is the positioning of the east or different parts of the east is both hypo and hyper modern is both technologically very advanced but morally and culturally deficient. And again, this is sort of a projection that's used to grapple with the West's own crises of modernity, its crises in relation to its own technological development, its self perception of itself on the world stage.

Um, and yeah, and so it continues to be, I think, a very important cultural and political force.


So, the Orient is perceived as something that is the scapegoat, but is also cast out, forced out in order for the West to be able to, create an identity for itself in line with its own values and principles.


Exactly. It's this kind of sense of, of tension that is needed, this kind of queasy fetishization and fear where the Orient is both very desirable, but also very fearful. And, and so there's been critique, for example, by like the decolonial school of thought from Latin America, which has said that only Asia had this privileged position to be considered the capital O Other to be considered the kind of binary counterpart to the West.

Um, and you know, I think that. It's a really interesting part of this much longer story of thinking about race and power and coloniality and how that's affected different regions of the world and different peoples in very distinct and different ways.


Can you give us some examples of techno orientalism?


Yeah, sure. Cause I recognize it's also just like a super long word and that's why I wanted to take the time to break it down and where it's come from.

Maybe also then tell us, because I think, you know, people are like, Oh, why do we need such a long word? That word, it has a lot of meaning within it. So yeah. Justify the word. Why do we need the words? And give us some examples of it.

Like it's a very like mouth chunky word right like and that's why again I do a lot of work on radio and I try not sometimes avoid saying this very long phrase because I worry it just switches people off immediately, but why I like to bring back and use this term techno orientalism is because I think orientalism is such a powerful critique of an idea of what it means to be quote unquote Asian or such a powerful critique of this ideology of Western supremacy and dominance.

And I think You know, techno orientalism captures not only the sense of technology as like a really central role in the West's own self perception of itself as modern and as progressive, and there's been really interesting historical work by people like Michael Adas that traces the way that technology has been a really central part of ideas of white supremacy and Eurocentrism.

Um, but yeah, I think it also captures to me some really interesting gender dynamics as well, because like a key part of Orientalism is this portrayal of the East as like feminine in different ways. And as someone who comes from a background of feminist thinking and gender studies, and again we're on a feminist podcast, like I think techno Orientalism really helps capture these ideas of sort of queerness and sexual perversity and feminine passivity that have been completely, I think, inseparable from forms of Asian racialization.


When the dominant power doesn't like something they call it feminine. It's the same with nature, you know, the feminization of nature, the rational man being put up against the hormonal period-y woman.


Yeah. And I think something that is also really important is that not only do we have the constitution of like the East is kind of feminine in particular ways. So think about Western obsessions with figures like the geisha, for example, we also have this very classic fear of men of color assaulting and attacking white women being a very, very common trope in a lot of the, um, racist literature that we see kind of in the 19th and 20th centuries about sort of scaremongering around particularly Chinese, also Japanese ascendance on the world stage, right? Also this idea of the so called 'Yellow Peril', which is used to describe this kind of fear that Asia would take over the West. Um, or, and that was attributed to both sort of movements on the world stage, but also to Asian immigration and drove a lot of the anti immigration bills that we saw in countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among others.

I think that there's sort of multiple layers of gender and of. sort of gendered ideologies and logics and discourses that are getting, you know, used in that play and the creation of this sort of fearful yet also desirable orient.


To what extent do you think that that trope of white purity being undone by the oriental, in inverted commas, man- is that a metaphor for society's kind of moral decay?

I don't know whether you did A Passage to India, if you went to school in the UK, it's one of the ones that, you know, you did and there's that scene where she's like, Oh God, now I can't remember. Maybe she's raped in a cave, that could be totally wrong, but the way that we were taught in school was that it was this metaphor for the disintegration of purity by proximity to locals during colonization and that fear, but also the longing is something that Said deals with really well in Orientalism.

The desire for the orient for, detail and beautiful things . You get that a lot in science fiction, like Blade Runner and, Ghost in the Shell.


I think one of the most common sort of manifestations of techno orientalism is the genre of cyberpunk. And this again emerged in the 1980s at a particular moment where cyberpunk was both an expression of counter cultural feeling of pushing back against the man of establishing the rights and the identity of the individual against the sort of overarching corporate power of the machine. Uh, but it was also very, very entangled with a set of distinctly, I think, U. S. white fears to do with a technologically ascendant Japan and also to do with the U. S. 's own crisis of identity, a term I keep using, following the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and trying to make sense of itself within this new world order.

And so what's really striking about things like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and a lot of other cyberpunk related material from the time is that it uses the aesthetics of Asia or particularly, you know, white lens on what they think Asia looks like as a way to kind of dress sets as a way to create an idea of the world that's in the future, but very specifically often a very bad world.

So it's usually a world where the human has become indistinguishable from the machine or from the clone. So again, think of Blade Runner. And to me, I think it's not an accident that that future where human and machine have become inseparable or indistinguishable is often portrayed as an Asian future because we have a really, really long history in the U. S. and the U. K. of thinking about Asian people and racializing us as machine like or automaton like. And so, you know, I think that. It is a way that Asian people have been dehumanized. And so I think unfortunately, in a lot of sort of very canonical works of Western science fiction, we see that dehumanization being replicated.

And this is why I think techno orientalism is also an important concept, because I think it's quite different in the kind of critique it's making to other critiques we see of a lot of these kind of Western white science fiction canons. Because if we look at say like Afrofuturism, for example, a lot of that is trying to counter the fact that Black people and many other peoples of color are often just totally erased from science fictional futures, right? We don't even figure into these visions of futurity at all. And that links to those ideas of pre modernism. Um, whereas I think of course we see that trope a lot of the time with, you know, Asian people, again, the set dressing with kind of visual markers of a very stylized idea of orientalness or Asian ness is not always accompanied by like, Asian people. Astria Suparak is an artist who has a whole project called Asian Futures Without Asians.

But at the same time, it's also trying to contest the way that we appear in these futures and like what Asian ness is meaning or doing in that context.


Yeah, it's an Asian future, but it's Scarlett Johansson.

With all the controversy that came around that. You know, at the moment we're still just beginning to break down that assumption that Made in China means mass produced, poor quality, with a lack of creativity, possibly a copy of something that was created elsewhere.


Yeah. And I mean, I think this idea of, you know, China as like a human factory has been a really central trope and a lot of techno orientalist representations.

And so here I'm drawing on a fantastic edited volume called Techno-Orientalism by, David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, Greta A. Niu, and I'll link that in the show notes and on our website. So you can find that really highly recommended. Um, you know, and I think, to me, it's interesting that these critiques of China as a human factory, you know, they're very, very, very important critiques to make of labor conditions and of the extractiveness of mass production capitalism.

But, you know, a), it also completely underplays the extraordinary work of Chinese creatives. And b), it's often naturalized or seen as something inherent to what it means to produce Chinese goods, what it means to be Chinese, it's seen as very much an output of culture, rather than to do with the machinations of global capitalism and to do with the distinct political and economic circumstances that have led to this kind of production being considered valuable or being normalized.

And, you know, this is a constant problem we see with Um, technology on the world stage as well or AI as we see certain kinds of political or economic policies being treated as this kind of natural output of culture. And that to me is really homogenizing and quite dangerous.


How? Tell us how. How is it dangerous?


I see this a lot with a particular kind of rhetoric around the idea of an AI arms race between the U.S. and China. And to be clear, you know, I'm not saying that there aren't like meaningful national security objectives that say the U. S. will have, um, but rather that the issue is with the way that this polarization is being set up between the US and China. Um, I think I see a lot of the rhetoric around the AI arms race as being built on particular kinds of racial foundations. So there's already really good critiques of the AI arms race rhetoric. So the idea that countries are competing to produce the best, um, AI as fast as possible. Um, there's already been really good critiques of that through the idea that this undermines safe and ethical AI development, for example, uh, because if people are just immediately trying to make something as fast as possible, there's a worry that they might jump ethical steps, right?

That they might not put the necessary checks and balances in, they might not do the testing required. So there's an idea, I think, that this racing rhetoric or this idea of kind of competition rather than cooperation is potentially itself just quite a dangerous one. But we also, I think, see two different kinds of like racial ideas at play.

And the first is this idea of a clash of civilizations. So in the 1990s, there's a political theorist called Samuel Huntington, who wrote this very famous essay, very notorious essay called The Clash of Civilizations, where he argued that following the fall of the post Cold War order, the main conflicts on the world stage were going to be quote unquote "civilizational".

So they were going to be cultural and to some extent ontological in nature. And this didn't mean that conflict was going to be inevitable, but that when conflicts occurred, they were going to be a lot more intractable. And there's really good critiques of this theory by people like Edward Said himself, for example.

But I think to me, what's really worrying is we see a lot of that civilizational rhetoric at play in the way that people are talking about AI development now. So for example, there's very much this idea of American values, right? This idea of AI needs to be developed with American values and that the AI arms race is a values competition.

It's not just a technological competition. And again, I'm not saying that technology doesn't have values. It's obviously totally inimical to the whole of science and technology studies. I am interested in that nationalistic move of saying that our technology is distinctly representative of our national culture and that it's diametrically opposed to all the technology produced by another supposedly entirely distinct culture.

Um, yeah. And so I think that's one way I see it playing out. The other way I see it playing out is building on these kinds of racial ideas that I've mentioned previously, techno orientalism, the yellow peril, and this idea of China being portrayed as like a distinctly ominous civilizational threat compared to say, like other European countries, or like the UK or Germany, that there's kind of a racial history that rhetoricians and politicians can draw on to make their case to make this threat seem even more frightening.

And that has a real impact on the lives of Chinese Americans, of Chinese diasporic people around the globe. And I think sometimes that cost is not necessarily you know, acknowledge or dealt with in a very meaningful way.


Yeah. So they're willing to just throw people onto the bus, real people, real populations . So it's kind of rule by hate rather than by love.


Yeah. And I think as well, you know, and again, like I in no way want to ever condone like the extraordinary state violence committed by the CCP or many, many of China's authoritarian and really awful policies.

Um, but I think There's also a real harm in treating Chinese people outside of China's borders as sort of inherently somehow representative of China's interests as sort of sleeper agents for the Chinese state. And unfortunately, this has been, I think, um, An outpost or kind of has been an outcome of this AI arms race rhetoric and kind of the broader rhetoric around Chinese economic and technological espionage.

And we've seen really tangible evidence of this, such as the government's, uh, 2018 to 2023 China initiative, which prosecuted largely, I think it was 88 percent of the people prosecuted were people of kind of Chinese origin as supposedly committing economic espionage. Very few of those cases actually resulted in a successful prosecution, um, and it led a lot of Chinese American academics and, uh, academics of Chinese descent feeling very, very frightened and existing in kind of an atmosphere of hostility and fear and feeling like they couldn't do their research. They couldn't apply for federal funding pots anymore, and I think it contributes to this longer history of portraying Asian Americans as these perpetual foreigners or these perpetual outsiders, people who will never be fully American or fully loyal to America.

And so, you know, I think that is, again, like a real lived kind of fear or lived experience that is very painful that comes from these otherwise quite abstract seeming languages.


So many reasons for why we shouldn't be perpetuating this narrative of Oh, China is a major threat and you know, we must beat them we must really worry about them because it's something I hear really often it's definitely something that, you know, when I hadn't met you and I didn't know as much something that I thought before, and it's an attitude that's brought forward as well by the media.

So lots of reasons that you've given us to think critically before we say generalizations about, um, the relationship between Western and Chinese tech development.


Yeah. And I think the, you know, to me, I think the wrong conclusion to draw here would be to say, Oh, this means we can't criticize china, or we can't criticize individual Chinese people, or Chinese lobby groups, or anything like that.

Like, I think these critiques are crucial and important. I think this, for me, you know, my main concern is when does a critique that is ostensibly political become racial, which again, I think there's a lot of slippage there between China's country as threat and then a of Chinese people ourselves being constituted And then also, secondly, I just think a lot of You know, technological actors, particularly big tech companies really weaponize this language, right, of sort of an existential clash with China. And they do it not because they're like really passionate about protecting people's human rights in China, but because, you know, and again, we've seen really, really awful cases say in India where, Facebook allowed hate speech to proliferate. And I'm sure there's many, many other cases to me showing that I don't really think most of these companies are like that invested in protecting human rights worldwide, but they're using this narrative as a way of getting government funding as a way of undermining antitrust laws so that the government won't break up their monopolies. And to generate more and more investment in AI as a national project.

And so we see this in lots of different ways from the CEO of Palantir writing this awful New York Times op ed being like. We represent the nation with our surveillance technologies through to a lot of big tech leaders, people, like Mark Zuckerberg, I mean, Eric Schmidt is a really big player in this whole debacle arguing that if you regulate us, we're going to fall behind China. And that narrative, you know, I think is to me just like a very overt and manipulative political play.


Can you tell us a bit about what diaspora is and why it matters to think about, diaspora when you're, when you're talking about techno orientalism?


Yeah, sure. So like my academic kind of lens is I'm working from Asian American and Asian diaspora studies.

So I'm working very much as someone who is ethnically Chinese or multiracial, but who grew up not within China's borders and my family left China like in the 1800s. And so, you know, thinking about the distinct experience of what it means to be racialized as a Chinese or as an East Asian person, um, in majority, uh, non Asian societies.

And there's a huge amount of fascinating literature on this, um, from everything from, um, the experiences of the Japanese diaspora in Mexico. I have a friend who does phenomenal work on this. I'll also link her work in, uh, the show notes and on the webpage. Um, Jessica A. Fernández de Lara Harada uh, through to, uh, the experiences, particularly of trafficked and indentured Asian laborers from China, from India, from various parts of Asia, all around the globe.

And, you know, I think. Uh, paying attention to how these transnational labor flows were really fundamental for the development of modern capitalism has been a major preoccupation of Asian American and Asia Diaspora studies. But I think it's really important to highlight that that's the position I'm coming from because I think Asian American and Asian diaspora studies has a very different idea of Asian ness or of Asian racialization compared to someone who's maybe grown up in a majority East Asian society, right?

The perspective that I have is going to be very, very different from someone who was born and grew up, I think in China. Um, and I'm the first person I think in my family to go back to China for like quite a few generations. Definitely my mom's never been like, I went when I was about 17.

But yeah, so I think these positions can look different. So diaspora very broadly refers to these kinds of transnational people flows. It's a very contested concept. It's very complicated. Um, you know, but I do think that diaspora studies is not only important and useful for thinking about race and racism, but also more broadly to think about how, cultures aren't these closed off homogenous entities, like maybe Samuel Huntington would like us to think, but have always been really complexly intertwined in different ways.


Who is Samuel Huntingdon?


He's the Clash of Civilizations guy. He's a very, very influential, unfortunately, political theorist, but also quite controversial.


Gotcha. Thank you. Sorry, I left my brain in the sink washing up at 1am. Last question. There are lots of amazing science fiction writers and innovators who are creating different visions of what it means to be Asian in the future. Can you talk to us a little bit about them?


Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is something I am really, really passionate about because I think there's so many phenomenal fiction writers and poets and artists who are doing really insightful and beautiful work. So, I mean, someone who I really think does extraordinary work is Larissa Lai, who wrote the novel Saltfish Girl, also the Tiger Flu, and has a set of poems called The Automaton Diaries and interestingly one of those poems is a very long form poem written from the perspective of Rachel the replicant in Blade Runner

um, and so I think that's just really beautiful I have so many books ordered like my husband is freaking out our house cannot take more books But then agent diasporic authors just keep publishing more and then I have to get them and now it's become a problem but yeah, i'm also, you know, really love some of the video essay work that people like Michelle Huang have been doing to think about how sort of Asian people have been racialized in Hollywood and in more popular films and thinking about how we can subvert or how we can push back against those tropes.

Um, and my current kind of like thing that I'm really interested in is how Asian American and Asian diasporic writers are specifically thinking about. The intersections of technology, race, and climate crisis. So we had Stanley Chen on the podcast who wrote Wastetide that continues to be one of my favorite books.

Um, but also, yeah, again, Larissa Lai's work and many other sort of Asian diasporic authors are really grappling with that particular problem. And so that's what I'm riding on a lot at the moment. I will stop there because otherwise I could just keep going.


Yeah, there's lots of really cool visions of the future and we'll link them in the podcast notes so that you can have something to look at because it's often, um, easier to imagine or to understand what we don't want to see and harder to, to know what we do.


And I think having this like plethora of different visions is also really important because there's also been great critiques by people like Wendy Chun of things like Ghost in the Shell saying on the one hand, like, this is a really interesting and exciting vision of the future. This is my words, not her now, in terms of thinking about the relationship between human and machine.

But on the other hand, it's also evocative of a particular kind of Japanese nationalist mindset. And so this is another aspect of techno orientalism that we haven't really been able to talk about, which is techno orientalisms, plural, or thinking about things like self orientalization, how countries like Japan and China might often sell themselves on the world stage in relation to these orientalist tropes, or, you know, think of say the cool Japan trope and the centrality of things like manga and anime and how Japan sells itself on the world stage, different kinds of Asian soft power through things like K pop and J pop. And so, you know, I think this is just a topic that we could literally talk about for days. I'm still learning a lot about it. Um, but yeah, it's been a real passion project of mine for the last few years so it's been very nice to get a chance to chat about it.


Well, thanks so much.

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