By / Aug 31

We live in an unprecedented age of information, more than we can even begin to comprehend, right at our fingertips. The internet was once seen as an instrument that allowed the average person access to near limitless information, instead of limiting these things to certain elite groups, as was the practice in past generations. But as we know all too well today, one of the unintended downsides of this widespread availability of information is the breakdown of trust throughout society in what we hear or read. This shift is especially prevalent in our growing inability to discern what is true in a world that seems to be given over to misinformation and reinterpretations of reality often to gain status or prestige.  

Technology has a profound effect on us as human beings and shapes not only how we view ourselves but also the world around us. One of the most devastating effects of technology on society has been the breakdown, if not a full-on crisis, of what is considered true.1For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). This is especially widespread on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where terms like fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and post-truth have become part of our everyday vocabulary.2For a more in-depth look at the the technical and political factors involved in this debate, see my expanded chapter on misinformation and conspiracy theories in Jason Thacker, ed., The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2023). On this side of the often-utopian promises of technology, we now see how universal access to information and power actually helped to usher in a host of unexpected complex ethical questions—questions that many are unprepared to answer. Parents, philosophers, and tech-company founders alike seem to respond the same way as they wrestle with the ethical aftermath—if only we could have seen these things coming

French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, captures our blindness well when he wrote that “man can never foresee the totality of consequences of a given technical action.”3Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 105. Even our best intentions for these innovations can overlook the devastating unintended effects, especially when deployed at a massive scale throughout our society—especially a society that has sought to rid itself of a transcendent (or supernatural) understanding of truth and reality. We often pursue individuality at the expense of truth, and nowhere is that clearer than on social media.  

Post-truth problems

Filling the headlines of major media outlets and saturating our social media timelines, the influence of fake news, misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories grows each day. Where do we hear about these things most, though? In what context do you hear the term “fake news” thrown around? If your social feeds are anything like mine, your answer is probably, “When my political party takes issue with the opposing political party on a certain issue.” And that should upset us, shouldn’t it? That “fake news” or “fake facts” would be wielded as a weapon against our political opponents simply because they take a different position than us on a particular matter? Simply because they said something we don’t like or agree with? Simply because the information presented—even if it’s actually true—feels inconvenient or challenging? Shouldn’t it sadden believers that throughout our culture and even in our churches, it seems truth has become simply what we want it to be rather than some objective and knowable reality outside of us?  

I’ve noticed that trying to have a civil conversation online is getting harder and harder these days, even about the smallest of issues. Have you noticed this too? One idea or opinion expressed, and it’s like a fire erupts out of nowhere. We can blame our modern pursuit of defining truth on our own terms for this, as doing so creates an online atmosphere where “communication [with one another] is thwarted, and the possibility of rational discourse disappears,” as one ethicist put it.4D. Stephen Long, Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC, 2019), 8. It becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology—like the rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories—since we no longer have a common starting point for these debates in society or even a similar grasp on reality. Without agreeing on the foundational level about what’s morally good and bad, truth naturally becomes a political weapon, used to denigrate or “cancel” those who might hold to a different worldview or belief about how the world works.5For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). Though if you survey the top resources on the rise of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news, you will quickly find many are extremely partisan in nature, intentionally blaming one side of the political spectrum for rejecting reality or believing in fairy-tale fantasies in order to maintain some semblance of cultural power or influence.  

While the problems we face today in our post-truth society are exacerbated by technologies like the internet, social media, and even the rise of deepfakes—altered videos through artificial intelligence—the root of the problem is not the technology itself. Many of these pressing issues find their root cause in the philosophical and scientific movements of the last few hundred years, where there was a near total rejection of a transcendent reality, especially when it comes to moral norms. While many who write on these issues seek to blame “them” for the rise of our post-truth society and the chaos that naturally flows out of such a society, this kind of blame-shifting only makes the problem worse, driving the wedge deeper between opposing conversation partners. The result? Both sides increasingly fuel the breakdown not only of civil discourse but also of our shared pursuit of truth as a society.

Excerpted with permission from Following Jesus in a Digital Age by Jason Thacker. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing. 

  • 1
    For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021)
  • 2
    For a more in-depth look at the the technical and political factors involved in this debate, see my expanded chapter on misinformation and conspiracy theories in Jason Thacker, ed., The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2023).
  • 3
    Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 105.
  • 4
    D. Stephen Long, Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC, 2019), 8.
  • 5
    For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). 
By / Mar 22

If you were among the thousands of viewers to scan the bouncing QR code during one of the Super Bowl commercials last month, then perhaps you are $15 richer than you were before. Richer in cryptocurrency, that is. Anyone who signed up for a new Coinbase account was given $15 in currency. The surge of traffic caused the promo website to collapse. The Coinbase ad was but one of several different Super Bowl ad spots for crypto, leaving no doubt as to its ascendance to the status of cultural mainstream.

The digital revolution of the last three decades has had a tremendous impact on modern finance. Technology has fundamentally reshaped how human beings think and act in myriad ways. Our whole social world is now technologically mediated. Work, communication, leisure, citizenship, and many other elements of human life have been cast in new molds. That is because we share a reciprocal relationship with technology — it forms us as we form it. This tectonic shift in social self-understanding has also upended long-standing assumptions about currency and investment.

Two narrower features of modern financial innovation that have risen into common practice are day trading and cryptocurrency. The two are distinct but often related phenomena. Many norms of day trading apply also to crypto, and of course, crypto can be day traded. How are Christians to understand these innovations? What should guide Christian conduct in commerce? 

In response to these questions we need first to clarify what both day trading and crypto involve. We need, in other words, a sketch of reality, which will help us better understand the shape of our moral responsibility as people called to lead wise and simple lives in devotion to Christ Jesus (1 Thess 4:11; Rom. 12:18; Matt 10:16).

The moral parameters of investing

The capitalist insight that money can beget money is quite established. Someone invests in a startup and the company is profitable. She sells shares at more than five times their value and invests in two new startups. These too enjoy profits, and the enrichment cycle continues. Otherwise, all things being equal, investments profit because of the inherent growth in capital markets.

We need to think carefully about what counts as investment. At its heart, investment is placing value in something else of value. It needn’t even be strictly financial. I might say that I’m “investing” in my kids by taking them hiking in the mountains, by which I mean I’m affording them something of value because they’re inherently valuable. Or a teacher may invest in her students by staying after class to tutor. Or a volunteer might invest in his community by helping with litter collection at a local park. For all such examples the controlling idea is contributing something of value to something else possessing a value exceeding the thing contributed.

The idea of investment imposes real moral constraints. It matters what exactly we put our resources toward. The assisted living facility differs from the local restaurant, which differs from Disney, which differs from Penthouse magazine. Justifying investment in evil or corrupt entities is a sign of moral bankruptcy. We should invest only in what deserves investment. 

Typically we also consider duration a key determinant of investment. Conventional wisdom among experienced financial advisors is to invest in worthwhile companies and allow valuations to appreciate gradually. Let money stay put, and over time it will weather market volatility. Buying stock and selling within a short period of time, either within several days or on the same day, doesn’t constitute investment in the strict sense of the term. 

What are day trading and cryptocurrency?

Day trading is a speculative trading practice in which a trader purchases a security — a financial instrument representing value — and sells it on the same day. A trader buys anticipating some market eventuality that will create profit off the sale. Profit is dictated entirely by whether the eventuality occurs. It is an informed gamble that often requires taking a large position in the market in order to achieve profits warranting the risk. As such it is a practice of specialty investors and firms.

Around 50-70% of day trades are not conducted by human beings as a result of human decision but by algorithms trading upwards of 1,000 transactions a minute.1For an accessible explainer of algorithmic trading, I recommend Radiolab’s podcast episode, “Speed.” Trades occur in explosive bursts as algorithms test the market and manipulate advantageous conditions for transactions. Some algorithms are designed simply to counter other algorithms. The primary explanation for algorithmic domination of day trading appears to be the seasoned platitude — “fastest always wins.” Transactional speed becomes self-justifying, and the integral feature of investment, duration, is jettisoned.

Construing the meaning of “investment” so as to encompass any allocation of capital that promises a return is mistaken. It is mistaken for several obvious reasons; not least its consequentialist presumption of the ends justifying the means, which makes even crass gambling commendable. The simple prospect of a return is not itself enough to justify allocation of capital. Nor should one misapply “stewardship” in an effort to redeem the practice. To steward a resource, including capital, involves respecting the goods internal to that resource and the just allocation of that resource. 

Cryptocurrency emerged as a digital response to perceived weaknesses in modern monetary theory and as a strategy for securing transactions. Many countries, like the United States, have a “fiat” currency (i.e., currency issued by a government but not backed by another commodity) printed and backed by the government. Cryptocurrencies, as the name suggests, are encrypted virtual currencies, and there are many different kinds. Because crypto is decentralized, no formal authority enforces trust or regulates transactions. So, for example, although it doesn’t have the backing of a central bank on its deposits, neither is it subject to the bank’s runs or crises. Still, despite incredible growth, the large majority of consumers do not yet view it as the easiest or most reliable form of transaction. 

Ethics of investing in new digital currencies

The anonymity of cryptocurrency has naturally attracted criminal laundering and ransomware enterprises. Just how anonymous crypto transactions truly are is a matter of debate, as there is evidence that many leave a digital trail. Why must the transaction be secretive? Perhaps there are narrow parameters in which anonymity is warranted, but how can one be above reproach when anonymity becomes standard practice? Does it not matter who my partner in exchange is to me, or they to me? Scripture stipulates that it does.

The question of investment in cryptocurrency is relevant but somewhat tangential. The same principles articulated above to day trading apply equally here. Perhaps there is a narrow warrant in crypto holdings in expectation of inflationary periods. But we need also to inquire of the worth and purpose of the object receiving investment? What is that object — in this case crypto — doing for the tangible prosperity of people and the strengthening of society? Or to put the question directly: in what does crypto invest? If the answer to that question carries ambiguity, then investment is better directed elsewhere. 

All of this only scratches the surface of moral complexity in modern commerce. Day trading and crypto are financial innovations we still struggle entirely to grasp. Still, the guide for Christian conduct is not new and furnishes the norms and wisdom needed to judge and act as responsible agents. Christians are called to lead temperate, peaceable lives, to put our resources toward goods to which God invites us. As citizens of his kingdom we invest in his kingdom as trustees of the promise to make all things new (Matt. 25:20-23; Rev. 21:5).  

  • 1
    For an accessible explainer of algorithmic trading, I recommend Radiolab’s podcast episode, “Speed.”
By / Mar 8

The advance of technology has outpaced our morality. It’s a grim assessment, but it’s hard to argue against. In some ways it’s an inevitability — technology is always more potent with possibilities than we can initially conceive of. Who would have ever thought the advent of television, for instance, would one day lead to the moral dilemmas the television industry has delivered to us? Or, maybe a bit closer to home, who would have thought the iPhone could have ushered in such a temptation toward narcissism? Technology opens new worlds of possibility that we must respond to morally. With respect to much of today’s technology, we are proving ourselves morally ill-equipped to handle it.

With technology advancing at such a dizzying pace, how can we keep up? How can we maintain our moral bearings when the tech world has cracked open so many new frontiers of possibility, so many gray areas, so many moral dilemmas? In short, we must rebuild what we’ve so casually let fall into disrepair: our moral infrastructure.

What is our moral infrastructure?

There are two foundational components of what I’m calling our moral infrastructure. First, for believers and non-believers alike, our God-given conscience serves as a foundation upon which the tracks of our moral-ethical lives are built. Secondly, the Holy Spirit, himself, functions as a kind of moral underpinning in the lives of believers. Or, to extend the metaphor, he is the superintendent who razes our morally hazardous foundations, lays new ones in their place, and anchors them in the sure footing of Christ. The whole of our moral-ethical lives is lived (or not) out of one or both of these two moral components.

But there are other infrastructural components to our moral-ethical lives as well, which we might equate with the roads, guardrails, and road signs built on the foundations mentioned above. These teach us how to behave and guide us in the right direction. While the following is not an exhaustive list, I’ll highlight two crucial components of our moral infrastructure, one fueled by the properly formed conscience and one born of the Spirit.

Cardinal virtues: Prudence (wisdom), justice (righteousness), fortitude (courage), and temperance (self-control) have historically been known as the cardinal virtues. Dating back to the writings of Plato, the cardinal virtues were eventually recognized and adapted by the likes of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and are widely acknowledged, most notably within the Catholic Church, to this day. 

While some may squirm at their arguably Platonic origins (though I would contend that these virtues preceded Plato) and Protestants, in particular, may be uncomfortable with their association with Catholicism, it is indisputable that the cardinal virtues are morally virtuous ways of being. Objectively, wise and just living, for instance, contributes to people’s flourishing, as opposed to foolish and unjust living, which contributes to misfortune and ruin. The cardinal virtues are “naturally revealed,” we might say, to be good. Add to these the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love), and what we have is a fundamental component of our moral fabric as human beings.

Fruit of the Spirit: In the life of the Christian, the Spirit of God builds up our moral infrastructure by bearing his fruit in us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23, CSB). These are the road signs guiding us, saying “This is the way, walk in it” (Isa. 30:21, NASB). And, Paul goes on to say in Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit [build our lives on his moral footing], let us also keep in step with the Spirit [walk with him on the road he’s laid for us]” (v. 25). The Spirit gives us the raw material — the moral-ethical equipment — and the power we need to live lives that go with the grain of the kingdom. 

So, as the tech age leads to ever more frontiers of possibility and yet-to-be-conceived moral-ethical dilemmas, it is imperative that we maintain and, where necessary, rebuild these and other components of our moral infrastructure.

Why does our moral infrastructure need to be “rebuilt?”

Have you logged on to social media lately? Watched the news? While American culture as a whole could easily be critiqued, what’s often most discouraging and confounding is the behavior of many Christians. Technology, as it has repeatedly done throughout our history, has put new tools in our hands that we are noticeably unprepared for morally. 

But, why are we unprepared? Why must we rebuild our moral infrastructure? Because we’ve let it fall into disrepair. What’s becoming clear by our very public misbehavior is that, by our own moral neglect, we’ve seared our consciences, collectively and individually, and we’ve quenched the Holy Spirit. In our interactions with others, we have publicly traded the fruit of the Spirit for “enmities, strife, outbursts of anger, dissensions, and factions,” which Paul calls the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). 

Considering our public, moral-ethical behavior in the technological age, I can’t help but think of the famous exchange between G.K. Chesterton and The Times, a London newspaper, which reportedly sent out an inquiry to Chesterton and other authors asking, “What’s wrong with the world today?” “I am,” he said, abruptly. We would do well to join the likes of Chesterton, and confess our own moral neglect.

How do we rebuild it?

The natural follow-up to “why,” is “how” do we rebuild our moral infrastructure? The fruit of the Spirit, after all, is not ours to produce; it is the fruit of the Spirit. The cardinal (and Christian) virtues, as well, are not virtues that we can simply muster up; we are entirely dependent on God to work these virtues into us. So what do we do? Here are three steps we can take to begin this much-needed rebuild. 

1. Posture: In A.D. 410, Saint Augustine wrote a letter replying to a young man named Dioscorus, who, in a previous letter, sent to him (Augustine) “a countless multitude of questions” inquiring about the Christian religion. Near the end of Augustine’s response, he said this: “if you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, Humility . . .” 

In the same vein, the beginning, middle, and end of rebuilding our moral infrastructure is humility. Recognizing our need to have our moral-ethical foundations shored up, step one is clear: we are to fall on our faces before God in absolute humility. There is no other place to begin. 

2. Prayer: “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting” (James 1:5–6, CSB). When God’s people are in need of something, James’ instruction is for us to ask God. To pray.

In our tech age, we need wisdom because of the world’s new and unexplored gray areas; we need kindness and gentleness because anger and outrage are so richly rewarded; we need self-control because excess has never been more attainable; we need courage because Christianity in our society has never been less palatable. And how do we get these crucial components of our moral infrastructure? We ask. We receive from the God who gives generously. 

3. Practice: In James’ letter, he tells us to “be doers of the word” (James 1:22). And though Paul uses the language of fruit to describe what the Spirit produces in our lives (Gal. 5:22–23), he contrasts the Spirit’s “fruit” against the “works of the flesh” and warns us “that those who practice such things [works of the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21, CSB). In each case, James and Paul — along with the entirety of the biblical witness — are telling us to “put these things into practice” (1 Tim. 4:15, NRSV). 

One of the unsettling truths about asking God for something is that, often, he not only provides us with the thing we’re asking for, but he also puts us in situations where it’s needed. And he expects us to exercise what he’s given us. All of our asking is for nothing if we don’t actually practice the virtues and ethics of the kingdom. After all, “Faith without works” — without the exercise of virtue, without Spirit-born fruit — “is dead” (James 2:26). 

The way forward

As the technological age marches forward, we might assume that we need to discover an equally innovative path forward to ready us for the “brave new world” the tech age promises. That would be a mistake. All the tools we need to rebuild our moral infrastructure lie within our sacred text, the sacred community, and our Triune God. To go forward faithfully, we need only to rediscover the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:16).

For the people of God, the way forward may seem counterintuitive, for it is both down, to the way of humility, and back, to the cross of Christ, time and time and time again. And it is up, looking lovingly upon God with our whole selves, and around, loving our neighbor as ourselves. This way is “narrow and difficult” (Matt. 7:14), but it “leads to life,” to blessing, to flourishing. Though “few find it,” we have found it, and now we have the joy of showing this dizzied and disoriented world what life with God looks like. But they won’t be allured by Jesus and his kingdom, and we won’t thrive in the tech age, if we let our moral infrastructure crumble away piece by piece.

So may we take seriously God’s command to be a set-apart people. And may this culture that has gone so far astray know us and God’s kingdom by our fruit (Matt. 7:17–18). And through our faithful witness, may they find the ancient path that leads to life.

By / Jan 7

Jason Thacker joined Dawn & Steve Mornings (Moody Radio) to discuss ethical issues in technology for 2022. 

Listen to the full interview here.

By / Oct 18

Nearly every area of our lives has been technicized or digitized in one way or another during the past century. Technology has ushered in innumerable benefits for humanity, which often overshadow some of the damaging effects of these massive shifts in our daily lives. Smartphones have led to a growing culture of digital addictions and isolation, especially among young people. We see this fact clearly in the recent reports of how Facebook — and by extension, all of social media — has become toxic for teenage girls and for the rest of us as well.

Social and mass media have connected societies across the world, opening up new opportunities for everyone’s voices to be heard, stories to be shared, and economic opportunities to be spread like never before. But they have come with a price, exacerbating an exponential breakdown of civil discourse and leading to a weakening of various control mechanisms that helped govern our common pursuit of truth. Modern medical technologies have allowed for longer and healthier lives for millions of people, but have also led to a devaluing of humanity.  For all of the real benefits of technology, there are countless dangers that have often fallen outside of the public eye. In truth, technology has ushered in a breakdown of our social fabric and led to the commodification of everything. 

One of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century with the rise of modern technology, Jacques Ellul, opened his influential work The Technological Society by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood” (3). As a trained sociologist and a Protestant theologian, Ellul rightly saw that there are not only political or social components to technology, but also theological and ethical components as well. Southern Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler Jr. echoed these truths by recently stating, “Christians must think seriously about technology and understand that technology is a theological issue.” 

Yet, in light of these realities, there is still only a small — though growing — library of theological and ethical resources on these crucial issues. So where might the church turn for wisdom in this technological age?

Equipping the Church

Over the last few years, the ERLC has sought to lead the way in preparing the church for this digital age and warn of the impending issues of technology in the public square and in our local contexts. In April 2019, the ERLC launched a groundbreaking statement of principles on artificial intelligence (AI) declaring that the imago Dei is not only the central element of Christian ethics but also a key aspect of how we navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology. In a world seemingly set on the immanent and material, this Christian teaching reminds us that we are uniquely created by God given dignity, value, and moral responsibility for the things we create and their shaping power over all of society and culture.

In September, the ERLC board of trustees approved an ambitious and large-scale research project called the Digital Public Square which will serve as a hub for Southern Baptists and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology and digital governance over the next couple of years. The main goal of this project is to provide research and resources to help you navigate this digital age as we collectively think through complex and crucial ethical challenges with biblical wisdom and insight. It will include a state of digital governance report, statement of principles on digital technologies, two major book projects, and various resources — including the recently launched Digital Public Square podcast with conversations on theology, ethics, and philosophy in the public square.

The challenges ahead

As we look ahead to the ethical challenges of technology and the public square, we see three main areas of needed research and ethical reflection. 

First, the Church must be able to proclaim the inherent dignity of all people and their God-given, pre-political rights of free expression and religious freedom in an age that is increasingly hostile or apathetic to the truth of Christianity. The public nature of faith is a key aspect of the Christian worldview, even in a secularized culture that seeks to simply relegate religious belief to a private matter of individuals. Christianity is not a privatized faith, rooted in individualism, but a faith that radically transforms every aspect of our lives including how we love God and our neighbor in the digital age. These two issues are especially prevalent as society faces yet another epistemic crisis over the reality of truth and how we navigate the complexities of an increasingly diverse society.

Second an underdeveloped, yet key area of ethical research is defining the competing concepts of hate speech in a digital age and the key distinctions of physical threats of violence or immanent harm versus the dramatic growth of emotional safeism. In recent years, ideas — especially those of biological realities and historic Christian teaching — have been deemed as inherantly bigoted and harmful. But, as Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch eloquently states in his recent work The Constitution of Knowledge, “words are not bullets . . . stopping words does not stop bullets, and . . . confusing words with bullets is a tragic error” (203).

Lastly, in light of the dangerous abuses of technology and data happening all across the world today, the Church needs serious reflection on the ethical aspects of digital privacy, data collection, and the growing authoritarian abuses of technology. Examples of this are the desperate longing for complete and unfettered control of the Chinese Communist Party over the Chinese people — and, by extension, the growing influence of the CCP abroad — and the concerning trends of data collection being used to alter the behaviors of countless people through digital technologies. The combination of the power of these tools and the sinful nature of humanity does not allow for the Church to passively engage these issues.

Through the Digital Public Square project, the ERLC hopes to chart a new path for Southern Baptist and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology. We will do this based on the unchanging Word of God and the kingship of Christ, alongside a rich heritage of public and social engagement built upon the dignity of every human being. Technology is not a tertiary issue in the public square. It is a deeply theological and ethical issue that the Church must engage, compelled by the love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31).

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