Not only is it weirdly hard to evaluate what you yourself look like … but it turned out that consumers’ instinctively skewed self-perception, plus vanity-related stress, meant that they began preferring and then outright demanding videophone masks that were really quite a lot better-looking than they themselves were in person. High-def mask-entrepreneurs were ready and willing to supply not just verisimilitude but aesthetic enhancement.
— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (148)
To combat the physical and emotional effects of Zoom Face, “cosmetic injectables … give a natural, rejuvenated appearance.”
— Stacey Leasca, Forbes (quoting medical aesthetician Gabby Garritano)
Technological forms of life are disembedded, they are somehow “lifted out”. As lifted out, they take on increasingly less and less the characteristic of any particular place, and can be any place or indeed no place. This lifted-out space of placelessness is … characterised not so much by a multiple of identities, but by an absence of identity. Its context is no context at all … . In all cases, social interaction is on a different level from ordinary forms of life.
— Scott Lash, Critique of Information (21)
To zoom, in its original verb form, describes a decisive movement of a body through space, as in the abrupt upward climb of an aircraft, or a modulation of the space between two bodies, as in the play between the film camera and its subject (“Zoom”). The term carries connotations of speed, distance, proximity; it is suffused with kinetic energy and intensified affection. Zoom, Inc.—the pandemic era’s prevailing video communications platform—inverts these received senses of the word, as it liquidates the body, prunes away affective charge, and promotes an insipid aesthetic of atomised talking heads, rigid grids, noise suppression, and facile customisation. Along the way, the screen experience becomes increasingly dominated by a preponderance of talk. As we acclimate more to the look and feel, and to the attendant routines of working and learning and socialising from home, the platform refashions the screen from an aesthetic surface to a channel of multimodal communication, from a vehicle for the circulation of affect to one for the circulation of verbal, visual, and text-based information.
This essay takes aim at Zoom in its principle, normative form, as enterprise software developed for professional and educational uses. The ensuing critique is thus not directed at art and craft adoptions, at hobbyists, or at the many creative, experimental, or otherwise alternative deployments of the software. Rather, in enumerating some of the more numbing, oppressive features and effects of the Zoom standard, I hope to supply some basic benchmarks for what such alternative uses might strive for, beginning with a resuscitation of affect, embodiment, and aesthetic experience. For Massumi, affect derives from movements of and in the body, circumscribing a “real-material-but-incorporeal” dimension of experience (5). Affect studies, in turn, part ways with the “linguistic model” that had held sway over poststructuralist cultural theory for decades (Massumi 4). As a communications channel, Zoom dampens the affective dimension of any encounter, discouraging movement in its privileging of information exchange. (“Don’t … walk around during the class meeting”, read a multitude of college and secondary school guidelines for Zoom etiquette.) With Shannon’s classic diagrammatic model of communication in mind, we could say, on Zoom, the bodies of sender and destination are forever obscured by the mechanisms of transmission and reception.
The eclipse of aesthetics and embodied affect by information in the contemporary screenscape is hardly unique to Zoom, nor is it a particularly novel trend, but one whose genealogy harks back to film newsreels and broadcast television’s nightly news. It is akin to the way the podcast has in recent years captured much of the sonic attention that had once been disposed toward music listening, or to the way, with the adoption of the PC some four decades ago, the screen has become an at-home workspace. In a pandemic year, Zoom has for many become a quintessential mediator of synchronous interaction in both work and educational contexts. In mediating two or more speaking bodies, it also mediates our relationship with ourselves, as we see ourselves speaking more closely and more often than ever before. My approach in this essay draws on critical discourse analysis, affect theory, and science and technology studies to interrogate the standard Zoom experience and its disciplinary effects. My primary case study takes the shape of auto-ethnographic exposition of Zoom teaching in a university setting. Within this framework I probe the “technological forms of life” screened on Zoom (Lash 21)—the emerging behavioural and perceptual norms, and new forms of standardised experience manufactured by and through the platform.
At work, in school, and in social life, Zoom has reorganised our habits and redesigned our capacities to experience and reflect on ourselves. Through its formal constraints and basic audio-visual setup, as well as through the common practices and etiquettes in effect for business and classroom usage, Zoom extends and intensifies many trends of our algorithmically mediated scopic field: a surge in self-reflection paired with a twin expulsion of otherness and environment; an occlusion of expressive and perceptive acts by rapidly accumulating instances of communication. Fulfilling David Foster Wallace’s 1996 premonition of a videophonic culture “spiral[ling] totally out of control”, Zoom has the power to monstrously augment modes, habits, and customs of self-reflection (148). It thus makes an archetypal communications medium for our age of extreme self-concern. My analysis of Zoom—as a ubiquitous “site” for social reproduction in the classic disciplinary spaces of the school and the workplace—reveals a suite of mutations around self-self, self-other, and self-environment relations, between my body and my sense of self, and between my body and the bodies of others (Foucault, Discipline 135–169). At stake is nothing short of how we organise and narrativise our lives and the space for spontaneity, otherness, equality, and bodily autonomy therein. In the specific constellation of powers and parameters of the standard Zoom experience—the fixed close-up on the face, the constraints on gesture, the stillness and frequent mute(d)ness, and, of course, the constant glitching—subjectivity is remade around diminished affective powers and ubiquitous self-reflection.
From Talking Head to Glitching Gaze: The Dispositif of the Face
At work, in school, and in many social settings, the communication-image on Zoom is typically an image of a face, a few faces side by side or nested one in the other’s frame, or an entire grid of faces. The Zoom standard exemplifies what in documentary cinema is known as the talking-head format: experts and eyewitnesses are interviewed on screen, framed typically from the shoulders up and set against a generic backdrop. Whether it is Edward R. Murrow on the CBS Evening News or Edward Snowden in Citizenfour, the interviewee, as talking head, projects authority and authenticity; in the Zoom room, we are all such talking heads. While facial expressions and mise-en-scène also contribute information, the prevailing emphasis remains on the discourse issued forth from the mouth on the face. Zoom generalises the talking-head format so that, particularly during pandemic lockdowns, all our conversations, lectures, and meetings look the same, and each of our interlocutors—whether a student taking a turn to talk in class, an eminent speaker at a conference, a colleague at work, or a friend in the throes of a nervous breakdown—speaks through the visual trappings of authenticity and expertise inherited from the documentary tradition.
That, through a “picture-in-picture” format, we see ourselves commanding such authority may boost the ego, fuel neuroses, or both. In his seminar on the psychoses, Lacan locates the origins of psychotic delusion in a basic feature of the relationship between language and sensation: we hear ourselves speak and, even when not speaking aloud, we continue to “hear” our thoughts as if they are speech (Lacan 161–62). Zoom propagates a potent visual supplement to this phenomenon: not only do we hear ourselves speaking, but we see ourselves speaking, too. Although Lacan ridicules those who refuse to recognise the (typically) latent psychotic in themselves, my point is not that Zoom (along with similar video-chat apps that nest a mirrored self-image in the picture of the other) is making psychotics of us all; rather, as we grow more accustomed to this view, new dimensions and experiences of subjectivity open up. Our “self-view” becomes a constituent factor in the schema of the normative subjective.
In describing the solipsistic state of public discourse after a decade of social media saturation, we commonly reach for terms like disinformation, alternative facts, and fake news. In its standard, most common usages, Zoom proffers an image of ourselves to match. The platform has positioned itself as the foremost expositor of what I call the dispositif of the face. I use dispositif in Jean-François Lyotard’s sense, as a setup or trap for libidinal drives, as well as in Foucault’s sense, as a “thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble” of architectures, visibilities, and propositions that metes out “history’s destruction of the body” (Lyotard, Dispositif 246; Lyotard, Libidinal 23–25; Foucault, “Confession” 194–95; Foucault, “Nietzsche” 148; Crano 3–8). A dispositif synchronises the coordination of libidinal, corporeal, and industrial production. On Zoom, the face functions as such a dispositif, as its form appears in uncompromising close-up and interminably multiplied, and as its promise sustains social harmony and economic efficiency through an extended public health crisis and waves of state-mandated isolation. In its disembodying and “disembedding” of communication (Lash 21), Zoom crystallises the iconicity of the face, and, while an iconised and overcoded face is perhaps as old as human civilisation itself, never before has the face—not the face of a queen or a tyrant or a god, but my face and your face and any face whatsoever—been exposed up close so often to so many people.
The self-care industry has been quick to respond. Glamour describes how “excessive video conferencing can trigger damaging repercussions for our mental health and our body image” and offers a series of predictable tips to stay positive and put on your best “Zoom face” (Turner). Similarly, with special attention to body-dysmorphic disorder, Vogue reports on “how staring at our faces on Zoom, is impacting our self-image” (Valenti). In classrooms, students plead to keep their cameras off, and, while some may do so simply to mask their distractedness, it would not be unreasonable to take a preponderance of black screens as an index of increasing anxieties around being seen—and seeing ourselves speaking and seeing—in this way.
Elsewhere in the self-care industry, one might even get a new face. The “aesthetic doctor” Sarah Hart explains: “the increase in the use of Zoom seems to have caused a post-lockdown boom in patients seeking facial improvements. … Not only are more people getting cosmetic injectables, they’re also looking into plastic surgery … . Jowls, double chin, frown lines and lip lines are the top features people tell me they would like to correct” (Hart). In the era of the ubiquitous closeup, success and self-optimisation might hinge on the refurbishment or reconstruction of one’s own face. Coworkers, teachers, students, and even some friends are not used to seeing each other’s faces this closely, and, even though this hardly amounts to seeing each other, many are turning to Zoom Face Experts (ZFEs) for tips on (as a Forbes headline reads) “how to look and feel your best on those constant video calls” (Leasca). Although a scant few may go so far, “cosmetic injectables like wrinkle reducers and dermal fillers are a great place to start”, or so advises one of the Forbes-featured ZFEs, whose firm seeks to produce “a natural look” in “adding lost volume to improve the overall dimensions and contour of the face” (Leasca).
One might reasonably contend that this has little to do with Zoom, that these cosmeticians and plastic surgeons are simply seizing the pandemic moment to ply their trade; I concede this point, but it remains subsidiary to the revelation in popular discourse of a heightened regard for self-image now that we attend meetings, classes, and social gatherings in front of a mirror. Zoom parades the face in an immobile, long-take close-up, and, in a socially competitive consumerist society, it is only natural that some in this scenario would feel compelled to “fix” their face along the lines suggested by the ZFEs quoted above. Indeed, Kember and Zylinska situate cosmetic surgery within a broader context of “makeover culture” and the neoliberal imperative of perpetual self-improvement (134–136). In this vein, face-fixing could hardly appear farther removed from the practices of posthuman metamorphosis and post-disciplinary modularity that scholars have typically invoked to think plastic surgery alongside the novel affordances of digital cultural production (Duckett 209–224; Shaviro, “Post-Cinematic” 13–15). While many have found the proverbial virtual realm to be conducive to identity play and self-transformation (e.g. Turkle, Life), I am tracking a countercurrent: Inhabiting the communication-image on Zoom, one strives to become more like oneself. Face-fixing feels as banal as changing one’s virtual background; lured by the self-expressive promise of customisation, we hollow out our contexts and lift ourselves out (Lash 21, 148), conforming ever more to our own self-identity, becoming increasingly the same.
Turkle has long warned of the civilisational threats posed by digital communication technology and practice, seeing the easy affordances of text messaging and social media as so many means of sidestepping the awkward and difficult moments that make conversation meaningful and make us full participants in human sociality (Turkle, Alone; Turkle, Reclaiming). Only in face-to-face interactions, she argues, can we fully develop our empathetic powers, and, despite its highly marketable promise, Zoom comes up short (Pasternack). While Turkle roundly disputes “the idea that [Zoom] is successful communication” (Pasternack), the ZFEs contract to help one achieve a verisimilitude commensurate with the platform’s success. Despite their differences, Turkle’s cautionary work shares with the ZFEs and the Zoom marketers a paradigm-defining, all-too-human devotion to and investment in the face. As dispositif, the face is venerated and desired perhaps more than ever before, something to reveal or withhold strategically, an icon of the person, a synecdoche for the body. The larger problem for human communication is not that we see too little of the face; it is rather that we see too much, and too much of our own. As it lubricates the social and institutional machinery of capital, Zoom likewise marks a retreat into the human, a reinvestment in the dispositif of the face. It is here that we arrive at what Kember and Zylinska, in a different context, name “the limits of becoming” (136).
No matter how we look or feel about our self-image (and no matter how creative or revealing or obfuscating our backgrounds), the platform will always render impossible any shared emplacement or reciprocity between self and other. This is in part because, in speaking and listening, I cannot look at another’s face and make eye contact at the same time: I can look like I am making eye contact, but to do so I must look into the camera. This is commonly recommended in professional circles. According to Forbes, “looking into the camera is the equivalent of making direct eye contact” (Goman). Turkle likewise adopts this strategy but is ultimately dissatisfied with its results (Pasternack), as we all should be. My conversation partners surely know that I am in fact not looking at them, as I gaze into the green light atop my laptop screen. The alternative is for me to look directly at the other’s face, but without looking like I am making eye contact. In one case, the other might well understand that I am looking at them, even though it does not look as if I am; in the other case, I show an effort to try to find them, to search (confusedly, or perhaps with a feigned, Forbes-inspired dose of confidence) for their eye through the tunneling eye of the camera. Either way, the contact is only ever indirect and asymmetrical.
The implication is that, to Zoom, eye contact is inessential for “successful” face-to-face communication, no longer codified as part of the message. Everywhere my eye might meet the gaze of the other, it gets displaced onto the camera-eye or deflected into self-reflection. This experience—of a communicative act with all trappings of face-to-face contact but nothing of the reciprocal gaze—is only further complicated in group settings. As a teacher leading class, I frequently scan the grid of faces on my screen, out of habit, as if to simulate what in an emplaced setting would signal recognition. As I lean in, those on the other end might notice my eyes darting around my laptop screen, perhaps able to acknowledge that I am acknowledging them, but this comes through an attunement to micro-movements of the eyes rather than to my body moving through space. Without direct eye contact, there can be no genuine reciprocity between the I and the other. To Levinas, the face of the other acts as a check on my self-certainty and my otherwise limitless capacity for self-extension into the world of things. On Zoom, as the power of the other—that is, the other’s counter-power of “total resistance” (Levinas 197–98)—breaks down, the powers (as well as the psychical maladies) of the self expand. In the Zoom room, I am but a floating head, framed in close-up, consigned to the spiritlessness of indirect eye contact and hyper-mediated expression. In the Zoom room, the gaze no longer binds two or more bodies in talk; my look finds not the other but only myself looking, and so builds the infinite circuit of self-reflection.
My point here is not simply to advise turning off “self-view”. Having self-view as the default alone speaks volumes about our everyday experiences of and in technoculture more broadly. Whereas media scholars have for decades been keen on the powers of digital mediation to decompose the liberal humanist individual, I see Zoom, in its standard operations, to be tacking the other way. We would do well to recall Benjamin’s observation of the dire consequences of a revolution in communications technology without a concomitant revolution in property relations (236). Zoom can afford a safe and easy means of expression, but only so long as we steer our desire for mutuality towards the platform’s own proprietary transmission and the spotlighted properties of the face.
No Object, Still Life
If there is anything revolutionary about Zoom, it is in its freezing up, glitching, and breaking down, which I return to below. When functioning smoothly, Zoom, at a macro level, sustains the communication and sociality essential to the maintenance and growth of capitalist institutions; at a micro level, it marks the apogee of digitally induced narcissism (Han 1–9). In the Zoom room, the other is no object; all modes of non-self get squeezed out. Neither my interlocutors nor the environment present an obstruction to my pursuit of self-regard. Zoom illustrates in real time what Han identifies in social media culture more broadly as “the expulsion of the other” (Han 40–43). The other becomes less ob-ject than ab-ject, thrown out rather than thrown in the way, their body cast aside instead of being something my body might be cast into. Kristeva explicates the abject as “not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness that … familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate” (Kristeva 2). I take this to neatly capture the status of the body—my body, other bodies—in the Zoom room. In Irigaray’s work, as in Levinas’s, the other provides a necessary and healthy yet also troublesome counterweight to the gravity of sameness and self-interest that pulls so hard on modern lives. “The other interrupts the system of cross-references of my world, re-opens my horizon and questions its finality. As such, the other undoes the familiarity that was mine. The other is always a stranger who crosses the limits of my territory and upsets my habits” (Irigaray 97). As I have been charting here, this formidable otherness is perhaps not impossible but exceedingly hard to come by in the rarified air of your or my personal(ised) Zoom views, with each of us visually confined to our own box in the grid, our bodies drawn so far apart that the distance between them becomes immeasurable, dissolves, transmutes into the flattened reticulation of our inviolable compartments and our impermeable worlds.
Over three-and-a-half semesters of Zoom teaching, I have regularly deployed on-the-fly polling and informal follow-up interviews to glean what students have missed most about in-person learning. The leading response has to do with the spontaneous conversations that happen right after class, rehashing a lecture or a text on the way out of the building. Another frequent response has to do with the embodied act of covering distance; students (and teachers too, I would wager) miss ranging across campus in a crowd, the collective rambling, or the commute by bike or by foot or by bus, as physical activities that are purposeful and goal-directed yet at the same time marginal and transitional, in between events or destinations, where a serendipitous encounter might prove illuminating or might even throw one off course.
Again, Massumi’s framing of affect in terms of movement—“phase-shifts of the body”—provides an instructive cross-reference for our grasping the somatically restricted world of experience that Zoom has helped usher us into (5). A body moving through space is a body modulating space and modulated by its various currents and moods. In the experience of distance—which is space considered from a temporally subjective point of view, space temporalised—an affective body is made. Embedded in space, one makes oneself an affective body. In collapsing space and distance, Zoom drains affect from the body and the body from the subject, instead anchoring selfhood in the immobile, implacable form of the face.
While hardly alone in doing so, Zoom expedites the ongoing unsnarling of self and other and the subsequent thickening of the former and “expulsion” of the latter (Han). In the loop of self-reflection, under the spell of the dispositif of the face, no relation between bodies can be forged. Evacuating the body from the scene—displaced from the office and the classroom as easily as it is cropped from the frame—Zoom detours us from everyday architectures of spontaneous encounter. Even with friends, our conversations—which is to say our talking, our everyday inhabitation of language—become more intentional. No longer does one bump into a colleague and strike up an exchange. Unannounced telephone calls grow increasingly rare; one sends a link or an invite in advance. Occasion for discourse becomes increasingly planned.
Like language, so too our habitual actions have, in pandemic times, been reconstructed to cut out contingency. Without a commute, our arrival to work and school remains distraction-free. Chance interruptions are limited to domestic affairs: a leaky appliance, a noisy neighbor, a bothered pet. Here, getting sidetracked entails shoring up the space of the same. Otherness, in the form of the unexpected, is barred from the scene. This weeding out of randomness in everyday life occludes corporeality, dampens cultural creativity, and directs libidinal energies exclusively towards predetermined investments. Like all electronic media, Zoom promulgates an “atopic info space-time”, as it accelerates communication while promoting somatic inertia (Lash 147). In a great irony of its branding, Zoom, Inc. forecloses the very action that its eponym describes. Zoom immobilises bodies and accommodates little in the way of movement on screen. The affective intimacy of the cinematically zoomed-in close-up, for example, can be feigned but never fully achieved, as there is no initial distance that must be overcome. Nothing in the Zoom view pulls closer; nothing drifts away. There is no “swift movement” or “rapid change” (“Zoom”), no distance to cover, and neither “resonation” nor “sensation” of such (Massumi 14). Both the face in the frame and the body at the desk must tend toward stillness to minimise noise and streamline the communication.
Gone are the shared sounds of the classroom, the ambient and incidental noises, the constant soundtrack of co-presence, of scores of bodies gathered in the same space: the unzipping of jackets and backpacks as students come in, the abundant small talk before class, the controlled cacophony of small-group breakout sessions, the comically overwhelming sounds of an airplane overhead or a nearby grounds crew. By contrast, the ubiquitous silence on Zoom is deadening—a ripe score to our increasingly pervasive processes of asocial reproduction. One might be prompted to recall, again noting the obvious irony, the onomatopoetic, mid-nineteenth-century origin of zoom: to make a zoom-like sound, “as made by something traveling at speed” (“Zoom”). In the soporific stillness of the Zoom classroom, there can be but an alienating silence, save the sound of my own voice, doubly discombobulating in the intermittent echoes and distortions attendant to the algorithmic compression and buffering that take the place of spatial experience.
There is something lost in the way of proprioception here as well, understood as “the sensibility proper to the muscles and ligaments”, which “effects a double translation of the subject and the object into the body” (Massumi 58–9). In the classroom, my voice projects and resonates in ways that are shaped by the space; as I pace the front of the lecture hall, or around the seminar table, I get a sense for my environment in part by hearing the sound of my own voice bouncing around the room. By contrast, alone in front of the laptop camera, not only am I trapped in silence, but I am also locked in place, facing the screen. If I stray too far, or if I fail to direct my speech sufficiently towards the microphone, the communication may collapse. Those subtle sonic reverberations of the classroom permeate my sensory apparatus, register my movement, help bind me to a space, and inform my dispositions. And others hear them too, in more or less the same way, but adjusted slightly according to their relative location and orientation in the classroom. The sounds of shared spaces—and the shared sounds of a space—help fuse an ephemeral group subjectivity, a being-together in the sonic body of language. In the placeless place of the Zoom room—the room without room—the body is bound before the desk, its gestures distilled to generic icons, its broad movements reduced to micro-expressions, clicks, and swipes. One sees other spaces without hearing them or feeling them; the faces and voices issuing from them come “lifted out”, with background noise and room resonance algorithmically sifted away. In short, the success of Zoom comes at a tremendous cost to the body: Fatigue compounds. Eyes strain. Backs ache. The body itself becomes abject—that which escapes the subject but is itself neither an object nor an other—that which makes something other of the self (Kristeva 5).
Conclusion: Frozen Frames
Zoom abounds in aesthetically pleasing and socially creative uses, but what I have been after are the normative, standardised sorts of everyday experiences one has on the platform, in the scenarios it was designed for, and the function of those experiences in the formation of subjectivity. It is left to artists and other experimenters to expose and undermine the workings of power in the standard corporate, neoliberal modes of engagement I have been interrogating here.
Short of such alternative uses of the platform, it is in the glitch—bearing witness to the cutup versions of ourselves (freezing, muting, skipping, jumping, pixelating)—that affective embodiment returns in unanticipated ways. The ZFE quoted above proclaims that, with their naturalistic injectables, “the days of frozen faces are over” (Leasca), but, if there is any universal to the Zoom experience, surely it is the intermittent lags, the regular but unpredictable freezing and glitching of voice and face. These visual stumbles reveal the duplicitous space-time of the medium: the time is no more “real” than the “room” is roomy. All the blips and glitches and frozen faces unmask the ruse of co-presence—the shared experience of temporal continuity always subject to sudden and indeterminate breakdown. In the glitch, in the moment of lag, right when the image freezes up, when a party to the conversation suddenly disappears, or when a teacher’s audio cuts out, or when you yourself keep speaking after everyone else became stuck only to realise that you are the one stuck to everyone else—in these moments of uncertainty (Will the connection resume? When? Can I quit trying to reconnect yet?), embodied experience gets a jolt; proprioception no longer divides into the rooms on the screen.
So we see ourselves speaking as never before, but it is a precarious, cutup version of ourselves, a floating talking head, intermittently freezing, skipping, glitching, dropping out. There in the glitch, out of the abject, a different body, singular and evanescent, is born. We must explicate this now, while it lasts, before broadband speeds increase and compression software grows more efficient. The glitch indexes a pause in the machinery that swallowed whole the body as it stripped aesthetics down to communication and then again down to direct and consistently projected, visualised speech.
The Zoom glitch recalls Rotman’s contemplation of the function of the gag through successively abstract, increasingly disembodied communication paradigms of gesture, speech, writing, and telematics. The gag stunts continuous, linear, progressive enunciation and discourse with a mute gesture, resulting in a new body “alive to other semiotics, other mediations … which speech [and one might add Zoom] … has always been only too pleased to elide” (Rotman 48). As the gag does with speech, so the glitch does with the seamless transmission of talking heads on Zoom. Legacy Russell writes of how the glitch, more broadly construed, “generates ruptures between the recognised and recognisable, amplifies within such ruptures, extends them to become fantastic landscapes of possibility” (Russell 28). On Zoom, the glitch reintroduces randomness and spontaneity, as it breaks the transmission and forces an erratic, incalculable aesthetic encounter. When the broadband stream lags, new creative forms of seeing and hearing and sharing and living can begin to emerge.
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