Me, My Cell, and I
The evolution of mobile technology and its evolving role in our lives
1. Check Your Pockets
You're showered. You're dressed. Feet planted in the right shoes. Arms threaded through the right jacket. What else do you need before you walk out the door?
All right, think. Well, you're going to the grocery to pick up milk and paper towels. The store would probably like you to pay for them, right?
Wallet! How would you get along in the world without your credit cards, cash, and ID? As you open up your wallet, you ponder fleetingly, "I wonder how much longer we’ll use paper money anyway?" Oops, you're out of cash. Oh well, thanks Visa.
What else? Do you need your fancy new laptop sitting on your coffee table? No. But, you definitely don't want that weird girl in the apartment down the hall to wander "into the wrong room" again. So you better lock up.
Keys! God, you love your stuff. You know it isn't the most important thing, but it’s still your stuff. And, thankfully, your keys are the unsung heroes which allow you to leave your stuff unsupervised, for however long you please, with complete confidence. Plus it's raining, so you’re definitely taking the car to the store.
All right. You’re now standing in the shadow of an open doorway, which is tempting you to pass through too hastily. But you’re unable to take the final step out of your apartment. You’re forgetting something. What else could you need? After all, you’re just running to the grocery store for a few things, right?
Since you won't be gone long, you decide to do your habitual 3-point check. Tap the side of your left pocket. Wallet. Check. Tap your front of your left pocket. Keys. Check. Before you even complete the ritual by tapping your right pocket, you know.
Your phone! Obviously you need that. You wouldn't have even had to remember it if the battery didn't die earlier while you were checking your email. You just forgot that it was charging by the couch. Because otherwise, it doesn't leave your side.
After you jog over to the couch and unplug the charger with the one-handed skill of a surgeon, you walk out the door, lock up, and are ready to face the world.
2. Do you have the time?
Hello. My name is Jacob Parks and we share something in common. Hopefully, by now, you already know exactly what that something is. (Spoiler) It's the cell phone.
I’m introducing myself because I really want to talk to you more about this bizarre utility tool that we both chauffeur around in our pockets everywhere we go. I mean, it's not even just us. Everyone has one! Who do you know that doesn't have a cell phone? Likely of the smart variety, but at least of the mobile variety?
I have friends without cable. I have friends without air conditioning. I even have a friend who can barely afford a few items off the dollar menu each day. But here is what I don't have: A friend without a cell phone.
Why is that!?
Smartphones are clearly great, don't get me wrong. They allow us to remotely manage a lot of tasks that we never could before. Facebook? Check. Email? Check. Texts, calls, skypes? Check, check, check. Financial, shopping, social, leisure, anything, everything, they do it all! Mobile phones provide a handy way for us to accomplish many of the things that we want to do, and now need to do, on a daily basis.
But, what exactly makes smartphones so invaluable to us? They are relatively new, so we were not wandering around for centuries with an insatiable appetite to delete spam emails and reject Facebook friend requests, but we just couldn't. So why do we feel like we need them so much?
As Lucas Graves, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, puts it, "It's not as if we were constantly walking around thinking, 'God, I wish I could text, but the technology just doesn't exist yet!'"
To examine how mobile technology has evolved and how its role in our lives has shifted over time, let us first start by exploring one of the most basic features of a modern smartphone.
Although we humans have always seemed to have a concept of time, for millennia people could only track the passage of time using nature. The most basic time keeping device nature had to offer was the Sun. If the Sun was in the sky, it was daytime. If the Sun was not in the sky, it was nighttime. For thousands of years, this was the primary method people used for tracking the passage of time on a human scale.
However, this was clearly not a perfect system. For instance, noon was not always an agreed upon moment in time. Instead, noon was whenever the Sun happened to be directly over your individual head. As you likely know, since we all occupy different locations on the globe, noon in China does not correspond with noon in England. Furthermore, even two people simply on opposite sides of England could disagree on the exact moment in time we call noon.
For a very long time, this was not a major issue. After all, how many people were in regular, timely correspondence with someone on another continent a dozen centuries ago? Although there was long period where precise timing did not matter in everyday life, eventually the proliferation of marine navigation led to an increasing dependence on more precise timing. People desperately needed a way to stay in better sync. And then it was time for clocks.
Steven Johnson, author of How We Got to Now, explains how “Galileo, who had been fascinated by the swinging of an altar lamp when he was a student in Pisa in 1583…discovered that the length of the string was the only factor that determined the timing of a pendulum’s swing, and used this to create the first pendulum clock.”
This newfound ability to precisely describe time ultimately allowed people to more accurately navigate their world. By the mid-1700s, clock towers occupied town squares throughout Europe. By the early 1800s clock towers were starting to pop up in cities throughout the United States. Though the American clock towers were often not nearly as grandiose as their European counterparts, they were still an amenity that the city would build for its citizens to make them feel more cultured and informed.
By the 1830s, because people were so tickled with the prospect of knowing exact times, American pockets slowly started to fill with portable, hand-crafted pocket watches.
3. Robert's Pocket Watch
Born in 1880, Robert was the fifth of six children. Despite a full house, Robert’s family was able to afford a relatively comfortable life. Robert’s father, William, worked hard for almost twenty years before marrying Robert’s mother, Eliza, and starting a family in 1869.
Like Robert, William and Eliza were also born and raised near Dayton, Ohio. Specifically, in the neighboring Jefferson County. In fact, Robert’s ancestors had lived in that same area between Smithfield and Bloomfield since the late 1700s when his great-grandparents, Laban and Catherine, moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania with the Bell family.
By the early 1900s, Robert had grown up to become a rather well-respected citizen of the Dayton area. As the primary (if not only) pharmacist in town, most people knew Robert’s uniquely stoic face. It somehow always managed to carry a hint of playful mischief just under the surface, while still maintaining the ability to scare the shit out of you. Fortunately, that typically only happened if you were late.
You see, Robert grew up in a different era then his parents. Robert was a member of the first generation where precise timing was necessary for keeping the cogs of society spinning. Although the clock towers and the pocket watches of the early 1800s were beautiful and admirable works of art, the functionality of a city was hardly dependent on them.
According to Lucas Graves, knowing the exact time of day was still relatively worthless during Robert’s fathers era. Graves says,
“When mechanized time first came along, it was initially a novelty. And so the first [watches] were pretty useless because no one else had them…you didn’t absolutely need one because you were still using previous methods to judge where you were supposed to be and when. Human communication didn’t depend on fine-grain, second by second commitments.”
However, eventually that changed. Unlike his father William, Robert grew up in an era where timing was important. As Steven Johnson put it in an interview with Jon Stewart,
“Until the late 1870s, every town in America was on its own time…No one ever noticed that this was a problem, because you didn’t have any need to, kind of, be that coordinated in terms of time…And then the railroads came along.”
Like a successful train conductor, to be a successful pharmacist, Robert could not merely show up to work "in the morning" or close "at night”. He needed specific hours and minutes of operation. His customers had jobs. If Robert was late for work, his customers were late for work. If Robert left early from work, his customers went without medication. Robert needed to know the exact time every single day. It may seem melodramatic, but if Robert lost track of time, someone could have potentially died.
Although the knowledge of the precise time was not always vital during the late 1800s, there was definitely a cultural shift once a certain threshold of people adopted pocket watches. As Graves says,
“But once everyone has a watch, then only assholes don’t have one. You just can’t get by without one because then meetings do start on time, customs have changed, train schedules are precise, and suddenly the world is going by the beat of one clock...The adoption itself creates the need, right?"
My great-grandfather, Robert Parks, needed to carry his pocket watch. And, like him, I need to carry my smartphone.
4. Morse's Missed Message
"Your dear wife is convalescent"
In 1825—while in Washington, DC working on a portrait of Lafayette—a bright, 34-year old painter received this concise and chilling message from a horse messenger sent from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. Upon reading the message from his father, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) immediately abandoned the Lafayette portrait and left for New Haven.
Tragically, by the time Morse arrived in New Haven, his wife was already dead. Devastated by his unavoidable ignorance of his wife's deteriorating health and ultimate death, Samuel Morse soon abandoned his successful career as a painter to begin exploring a technology that ultimately would shape our modern world.
By graduating from Yale in 1810 at the ripe age of nineteen before studying painting in England, Morse eliminated any questions concerning his intelligence. However, it was not until shortly after his wife's death that he developed a vested interest in science and electricity.
In 1832, after years of studying the possibilities of harnessing electricity for human use, Samuel Morse began his decade long quest of perfecting and popularizing the electrical telegraph and Morse code. His ultimate goal? To eliminate the familiar, and sometimes heartbreaking, delays inherent to the long distance communication of the 19th century.
It is interesting to note that initially Morse’s code was much more complex than it is today and required translators to page through thousands of code book pages to decode incoming messages. It was not without the help of Alfred Vail that Morse eventually developed and patented the 26 groups of dots and dashes, still know today as Morse code. These dots and dashes correspond to specific letters of the alphabet and were used as a simple—and shockingly fast—method for relaying messages from one end of the telegraph to the other.
By 1843, after years of lobbying congress for electronic telegraph funding, Morse finally convinced the United States government to fund the construction of a telegraph line connecting Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Using his code, Morse sent the first official message transmitted through the electronic telegraph on May 24, 1844. That curiously ominous message?
"What hath God wrought"
Ok, so at this point you understand that Samuel Morse was largely responsible for our ability to send a message over a wire very fast. But what the hell does that have to do with your cell phone!?
Well, think of it this way. With the advent of the electronic telegraph came our ability to transmit information and knowledge instantaneously to distant locations. On the surface, this doesn't seem like a huge deal, but just imagine what Morse would have given to be able to send his wife one final "I love you."
In essence, the electronic telegraph reduced the limitations of time and space. No longer did a message need to physically travel from one location to another like a letter did. Communication with the outside world was no longer limited by individual time zones or the speed of a horse.
5. Page Me If You Are Coming Over.
"Parks! What ar'ya doing out there?? 32-dive! Three back, two hole. Take the snap, turn right, and handoff it off to Leisring. How hard is...."
Coach Mauro checks the plastic black cricket clipped to his belt.
"All right guys, I've gotta take this. Three laps, then get some water."
I vividly remember this scene occurring countless times in 1996. I was eight years old and had just started playing peewee football. For peewee football teams, a few fathers usually volunteer to coach. My teammate's father and our coach was Tony Mauro.
Tony is a short, well-built man. He has dark olive skin, leathered by years working in the sun and stretched tautly over modest, yet defined muscles. The Mauro family is a suburban, Italian-American family, sporting names which pay homage to their ancestors, such as Angelo, Anthony, and Vincent. They are wealthy, yet decidedly blue collar with Tony, the patriarch, being an electrician.
Because Coach Mauro's day job in 1996 was running his own electrician business, he would often be on call during our football practices. And in 1996, what was the most affordable and reliable way to stay connected to your business when you were doing something else? Use a pager.
Although there are many technological ancestors to the smartphone, the pager is one form of mobile technology that may have done more than any other to lead us to where we are now. Pagers were initially used mainly by businessman and doctors to help them stay connected to their work no matter where they were.
For example, an on-call surgeon would no longer need to stay home near the phone all day in case of an emergency. Instead, he could go play a round of golf and keep a pager with him the whole time. If he got paged, he could use the clubhouse phone to call back and find out what the emergency was.
The pager was essentially a mobile answering machine that you clipped onto your belt. By paging someone, you provided that person with two things. First, you provided them with a number to call. Second, and most importantly, you were letting them know that you had something you needed to tell them. However, the drawback of the pager—which would only became apparent later—was the fact that it was initially designed as a one-way communication device.
The pager told Coach Mauro that a customer needed him. The pager even told Coach Mauro a number that he could call to contact the customer. But the pager did not let Coach Mauro respond directly. The pager's lack of 2-way communication potential was one of the reasons we had to run so many laps in peewee football. The coach needed to keep us busy while he found a phone.
Despite the pager’s initial function as a one-way communication device, eventually its user manual was rewritten by the users themselves. Although the technology remained the same, people eventually figured out ways to modify the pager’s intended function as a 1-way communication device.
Hernando Rojas, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, described how shortly after the introduction and adoption of pager use, teenagers in Japan figured out a way to use the pager as a 2-way communication device.
By assigning more specific meaning to individual numbers, the Japanese teens were able to pass along more information than simply call this number and the generic I need to talk to you, which was the intended selling point for pager companies. In the simplest example, Japanese teenagers would assign meaning to individual numbers.
Picture a teenage boy is rushing to catch his bus after school and he runs into a close friend. As the boy steps up into the bus, Rojas says the friend could yell, “Are you going to come to my house later?”
The boy is not sure if he will be able to go to his friends later, but he does not want to leave his friend in limbo either. As the boy enters the bus and is walking to his seat, he tries to figure out what to say. Rojas says that the boy could find his seat, spot his friend, open the window, and yell, for the first time, “I don’t know, but I’ll page you! 1 is yes, 2 is no.”
The pager companies did not fail to realize this drastic retooling of their device and their response was twofold.
First, the pager companies realized the market was not dependent on professionals as they had originally thought. People seem to want communication tools even when they do not have a predefined reason for why they need them or even how they planned to use them.
Second, and more importantly, the pager companies created text messaging.
6. Call me, I have my Cell
The first official call on a mobile phone was on April 3, 1973. Cell phones gained small popularity during the late 1980s for businessmen, doctors, and Zach Morris; however, they were not considered remotely essential for most adults until well into the 1990s. And by the late 1990s, getting a cell phone had become a rite of passage for even early teenagers.
I was in sixth grade and it was 2001. I was lucky enough to have my parents agree to drop me off at the Centerville High School soccer stadium to watch the first Elks match of the season...unsupervised. Being in my early teens, their only stipulation was that I keep my cell phone on me at all times. This was a new concept to me.
You see, my parents had just given me this phone in case of emergencies. From the get-go, my dad made sure I knew it was not to be used for texting, as it would cost nearly 25 cents per message (a figure which I later found he had inflated to discourage texting). Furthermore, we only had a limited number of family minutes. And as my two older brothers were both in college (ringing up the minutes), I was not supposed to use it to communicate with friends whom I could just call via landline.
Oh well. I just wanted to play snake on the Nokia to kill time anyway. I had no need to text or call on the go. I was in sixth grade! I was either at school, at home, or at a friend's house (per the plans we most likely made in person during school). Besides, not all my close friends had a cell phone anyway. So if I wanted to talk with them, I had to use a landline.
The point is, I did not need my cell phone in the slightest. My parents were right in saying it would be helpful in an emergency. But I never found myself in an emergency where my cell phone came to the rescue (more than maybe saving some time). I believe this is the case for most of us. When cell phones first gained popularity, we saw how they could be helpful, but we definitely were not lost without them. At least for a little bit.
But then something changed. Eventually we hit a tipping point. Once the cell phone became affordable, reliable, and most of all ubiquitous, time itself changed. As Professor Rojas put it, cell phones eventually "made time flexible.” Once everyone had a cell phone, specific plans to meet could now be manipulated and tweaked easily—at any moment, from anywhere.
When asked about the proliferation of cell phones, Professor Graves responded with a strikingly similar explanation to the one he previous made concerning the proliferation of pocket watches:
“At first, it’s kind of a novelty. It’s a way to plug into the existing telephone network, but nobody has the expectation that you’ll have it... It wasn’t indispensable, right? Whereas, the more people that gradually adopt it, then the more indispensable it becomes.”
The very idea of connecting with people was beginning to change. You no longer had to plan a time and place to meet. Instead, you simply decided that you wanted to meet up. The details of when and where could be determined on the fly. If two people were available but mobile, they could now use their cells to coordinate a meet. This shift instigated drastic changes in how we navigated our lives. Changes which are still apparent today. With the emergence of cell phones, schedules shifted from being set in stone to being negotiable.
7. I'm Sorry, I forgot my iPhone at Home
OK…So, we have finally worked our way through the evolution of mobile technology—which began with time itself—and now we find ourselves squarely in the present with our smartphones.
Although some may view the personal digital assistant (or PDA) as the earliest version of a smartphone, most of us would agree that the term smartphone entered our vocabulary with the release of the Apple iPhone on June 29, 2007.
The iPhone was the first true smartphone in the sense that it could do so much more than any of its mobile ancestors. It is based on the novel design of utilizing apps—or self-contained programs—that the user can download and run to perform very specific functions and tasks. The programs available on the iPhone were not preprogrammed as they were for cell phones and early PDAs. The iPhone finally pushed our mobile devices into a new category. The smartphone had appeared and, no matter what you wanted to do, you knew there was an app for it.
Because of drastic increases in processing power and the appealing decreases in the cost of electronics, it is not surprising that cell phones continued to grow more complex and ubiquitous until they finally made the jump to smartphones. And now, with our smartphones, we are no longer limited to communicating through only voice and text.
Not only are smartphones fancy phones that we can use to communicate through video and email, but smartphones are also tools we can use to supplement our real-world conversations with outside information. Our conversations no longer depend only on the knowledge we have stored in our heads. We can now use our smartphones to help us pull information from the internet in order to engage in more informed and substantive conversations—or not. For example, how many days ago did you extend a conversation (for good or bad) by relying on IMDB or Wikipedia? I would bet it wasn’t that many days ago.
Another crucial function of our modern smartphones is that they connect us to our online social networks. I have a Facebook. You have a Facebook. It's almost like a rite of passage for any newly minted teen to get a Facebook. Without it, how would we be able to stay in touch with our friends we don’t always see?
Although it is now hard to hear the term social network and not think of Facebook or Twitter, there was a time when a social network was only composed of people that you physically interacted with on a regular basis. Your friend Alex moved to Sweden? Twenty years ago, that move could have easily pushed Alex out of your social network.
But now you have a Facebook. Now you are still as close to Alex as you were when he only lived a half hour away. Alex is still in your social network. Furthermore, your social network is with you wherever you go thanks to your smartphone!
This shift from physical to virtual social networks is exemplified by looking at a past social group such as the Rotary Club. The Rotary Club still exists of course, but many of us who, decades ago, would have joined the Rotary Club as a way to reach out to our community, may now instead opt to simply join a Facebook group more suited to our specific outreach goals. According to Professor Rojas, “social networks are not dependent on locality anymore.” Instead, we are able to stay connected with anyone, anywhere.
Unfortunately—though our smartphones bring us video chat, countless functions, access to unlimited information, and social connectivity—they also seem to bring us a sense of constant tension which was not felt as strongly during previous decades.
8. Addicted to Information
Joanne Cantor reminds me a lot of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Shade. Not quite retired and very kind, she has an impressively high threshold for distractions and chaos. As I spoke with Professor Cantor at Peets Coffee in Monona, Wisconsin, she thoughtfully sipped her tea while effortlessly ignoring the clamor of students, gossips, employees, coffee grinders, and espresso steamers that were screaming for our attention.
Cantor has a sense of calm to her. A peace that seems to be a conscious effort more than just an inherent personality trait. She is also clearly intelligent, having first received a masters in communication from the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a PhD from Indiana University, before finally teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 26 years. She now focuses much of her time studying how our constant connection to digital devices impacts our productivity, our creativity, and our stress levels.
I think it was her unique combination of peacefulness and intelligence that perplexed me the most. Of all the people I know, I very rarely find the smartest of them to also be the most peaceful. If ignorance is bliss, then how does Professor Cantor seem so blissful in a world where ignorance is seemingly impossible?
We now live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information. Often, we have to actively choose which pieces of information we are going to devote our precious attention to. According to a study published in the Journal of Science, the average person faces the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of data every single day. 174 newspapers every day!
I’m proud to say that I still love to read the newspaper. In fact, when I stay at a hotel, there are few things I enjoy more than sitting in the lobby and casually working my way from the front page to back. However, I cannot recall the last time, if ever, I read every article or blurb in a single newspaper. There is simply no way for the average person to consume 174 newspaper’s worth of information each day!
Cantor was quick to point out that she was not always able to cope with this daily barrage of information as well as she does today. She recalled,
"When I started thinking about this, it was actually during the primaries before the 2008 [presidential] election. I was looking at the Huffington post, I was doing email, I was fighting with my young son over the use of the computer...he was always on, then I was always on. And then I noticed...And then I noticed, I thought I was losing my mind...I couldn't remember things. I was stressed out. I couldn't get anything done…And, suddenly, I realized the reason why! I was constantly going online to check the latest polls!"
This was a very important moment for Cantor. She had discovered she had a problem. Cantor was addicted to information, as so many of us are.
Although we often view ourselves as superior, we humans are still animals. The point being, we evolved just like all other animals. During our evolution, we evolved a number of traits which enabled us to navigate and survive in the dangerous world we found ourselves in. One nearly universal trait which evolved throughout the animal kingdom, including humans, is that we react swiftly to external stimuli. This is especially true for visual and acoustic stimuli. We evolved so that when we now hear an unexpected sound or see a flash, our brains still assume there is a predator attempting to ambush us and we react swiftly.
Well, at this point you may be wondering, as I did, if we do not want to act as mothers to our fragile devices, obsessing over their every hiccup and cough, then why don’t we simply turn our smartphones off?
Cantor believes there are a few different explanations for this. A major cause of our hesitation to silence our cell phones is due to a universally human “fear of missing out.” In the last half century, we have adapted to get what we want, when we want it. Instead of waiting every night for the six o’clock news, we now have the ability to get the news whenever is most convenient for us via our smartphones. Moreover, everyone else is able to get the news instantly too. Who wants to be the one out of the loop?
Because of our unlimited access to information and our fear of missing out, we now can, and do, get more information then we could ever analyze. So if that is the case, how do we select the right stuff to look at and how do we avoid wasting time looking at the wrong stuff?
Our deep-seeded urge to focus our attention on uninvited provocations is vital to understanding why we seem incapable of ignoring the beeps and dings of our electronic devices. We are not necessarily stimuli seeking, but we are extremely stimuli conscious. This is an important distinction. It means that we do not crave distraction, but if the distraction is left unchecked, we will be distracted.
To combat information overloading, we need concentrate on developing methods for damming the deluge of information washing over us each day. We need to develop methods for filtering out the irrelevant information and focusing in on only the important things.
When we inevitably get fed up with the stresses our smartphones bring, we need to realize that it has been a mere hundred years since my great-grandfather Robert’s pocket held a watch instead of a phone. We need to realize that we have created mobile tools that barely resemble the tools from just a few short decades ago. The jumps in mobile technology have been so large, and in such quick succession, that it would be astounding if we were not still figuring out how to best utilize our smartphones.
To maintain sanity and productivity while this modern flood of information perpetually washes over us, we need to remember that the smartphone is new, but our brains are not. Smartphones are our tools, and once we fully understand them, we can adopt Cantor’s mantra in the face of the flood: "I'm not losing my mind, I'm just misusing my mind."
9. Check Your Pocket
You're showered. You're dressed. Feet planted in the right shoes. Arms threaded through the right jacket. What else do you need before you walk out the door?
All right, well you're going to the grocery to pick up milk and paper towels. The store would probably like you to pay for them.
Phone! How would you pay for anything without your phone? Can you believe your parents used to carry around little plastic cards with them everywhere they went? Not even just that, your grandparents actually used to use paper money. And they got back thin, metal pellets called change! No wonder people used to actually wear cargo pants.
What else? You just got your brand new coffee table—complete with a waterproof, scratchproof, and shatterproof touchscreen surface—so you need to make sure the house is locked up. Thankfully, you already have your phone, so once the sensor inside passes through your doorway, the door will remotely lock.
Can you believe your grandparents used to carry around metal keys with them everywhere they went? Sometimes they even used to carry a dozen or more at a time! One for their front door, one for their back, one for their car, one for their mailbox, one for their garage, one for nearly everything! Now your phone can save passkeys for all your doors as easily as your grandparent's smartphones saved passwords for sporadic wi-fi "hotspots".
All right. You’re now standing in the shadow of an open doorway, which is seemingly begging you to pass through. But you’re unable to take the final step out of your apartment. You are forgetting something. What else could you need? After all, you're just running to the grocery store for a few things, right?
Well, you already confirmed you have your phone strapped on your wrist—which is really the only thing you need when leaving the house—so what else could you be forgetting?
Oh. Right. Take out the trash.
Some things never change.
I would especially like to thank Professors Joanne Cantor, Hernando Rojas, and Lucas Graves for the time and thoughtful contemplation they spared me during our initial interviews and subsequent talks. Additionally, I would like to thank Professor Deborah Blum for a riveting first semester in graduate school. I don't know if I will ever completely find it, but now I can at least say I am actively seeking out my voice.
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