The Vanishing Neighbor

Marc J. Dunkelman, The Vanishing Neighbor: the Transformation of American Community (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). Marc Dunkelman is a former Democratic staffer and now Senior Fellow at the Clinton Institute (yep, Bubba’s Place).

"Ringstrilogyposter" by Via Wikipedia -

“Ringstrilogyposter” by Via Wikipedia –

Sociology is back in vogue

Why should an economic developer read a review of a political sociology book? These days the only thing that seems to matter is economics–your economic base for example. Economic development, while dependent on economics to be sure, rests upon a society and the politics that society generates. Last time I looked, people lived in my community, not entrepreneurs, not knowledge-based workers or innovation robots.  Just People. People aren’t in vogue anymore–we’re individuals nowadays, special individuals at that. But scratch a knowledge-based worker and, I bet, there is still some humanity left. What happened? How did we change? To think about these questions is why we should read Vanishing Neighbor. It ain’t all about economics, baby; life is a bit more complicated.

As I’ve stressed in a number of past reviews, economic decline and growth is not simply the result of good or bad economics. Politics, cultural values, and changes in societal relationships and social classes affect our job performance, also. Why is it, for example, the more we write and talk about business formation, entrepreneurialism and productivity, the more the statistics indicate a worsening chronic decline? Why are we worried about increasing numbers of people not in the labor force, as opposed to unemployed? In what conceivable way are income stagnation and sluggish to non-existent wage growth going to be solved by an economic solution like minimum wage?  In my view, pure economic solutions alone are doomed to failure. Something in our culture has also contributed to these issues.

The Vanishing Neighbor is important to us as economic developers because its perspective helps us better understand the non-economic consequences of our economic development strategies.  Vanishing Neighbor makes us more aware that our most serious economic problem, inequality, is not purely, or even primarily, a simple failing of our economic system. A problem which is not capable of being remedied by just economic programs–but it is a societal and political problem as well. Despite its strange sounding name, the Vanishing Neighbor explores how economic changes generate societal changes with political consequences that make it difficult, if neigh near impossible, to develop effective governmental solutions to address, never mind to solve key economic and social problems such as inequality. What happens if societal change causes economic stagnation and political gridlock? That is what Dunkelman is trying to help us to think through.

Vanishing Neighbor believes recent technological and sociological change have transformed traditional American culture into a brand new modern American culture. A poorly understood brand new culture! We have heard of culture wars, organizational culture, the entrepreneurial culture, we may even have wandered across the political culture. But this culture stuff easily gets politically incorrect, very partisan, and hazy for most of us. Culture is a sociological concept, taught in sociology classes. How many of us have sat through a sociology class? Those of us used to tables and numbers and algorithms gaze over what seems like opinionated babble and personal assertions.


But in the old days, political sociologists, like Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan were respectable and insightful commentators on how culture intersected with politics and economics. Sociologists were important to economic developers thirty or forty years ago. Herbert Gans tore apart urban renewal for what it did to neighborhoods and the ethnic cultural fabric around which they were built. Jane Jacobs used huge doses of social relationships in her Life and Death of Great American Cities.

One of the very best books on City Politics was written by political sociologists Edward Banfield & James  Q. Wilson. But when Moynihan ran afoul of the African-American family structure, and other sociologists started talking about underclass–well that got too heavy. Worse, when domestic-focused neo-conservatives (not the Dick Cheney crowd that invaded foreign nations), such as Charles Murray (Coming Apart) and Martin Anderson (The Federal Bulldozer) tripped over, not only the political correctness line, but the correct political party line (becoming associated with conservative think tanks and Republican Party). Political sociology pretty much disappeared from the economic development spectrum, renamed “the culture war” and put out of our policy mix . A polarized population/policy system lost its capacity to react reasonably and civilly “to the other side”. In a polarized society, politics that we don’t want to debate or discuss–we crush. One cannot compromise with truth and fact. One cannot compromise with fools.

Well, responsible political sociology is coming back. It’s finding new voices and demanding to be heard–and not a moment too soon.

The Vanishing Neighbor in a Nutshell


Even though Dunkelman is very much a millennial, he remembers how he was raised, back in the mid 1980’s and 1990’s Cincinnati Ohio and Buffalo, New York. He longs for those good old days but has regretfully discover that for the most part, the world of his father and mother is no more. It isn’t that Dunkelman doesn’t like change or the new world, but more that he wants to know why such a complete and dramatic cultural transformation happened so quickly, in a couple of decades at most? Moreover, he wants to know how it has changed us–and he strongly suspects (and fears) that it changed us in ways that make us polarized politically and stagnated economically. There was one change that particularly struck him as fundamental to the old American Culture–you know that John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart American Culture that obviously is no more. The change he suspected was most important to understand our new world was culture– how we as individuals relate to one another–to others–to our community. Below are Dunkelman’s words and phrases that express how he reacts to this change:

With all the new opportunities to connect, something else had been lost. The sorts of relationships my grandparents had taken for granted while raising their children–between neighbors and colleagues, often across generations–had withered and others had begun to take their place. Over the course of several decades, the nation’s social architecture had been upended. (p. xii) …. Rather a whole series of changes in our everyday patterns has begun to eat away at the mooring that has long grounded American society. (p. xiii) …. Our sense today that the American Dream is newly imperiled–is more intertwined with the structure of American society than we tend to appreciate (p. iv) …  Our national angst has less to do with what politicians, corporate executives, bankers and other bigwigs are doing (or failing to do) and more to do with subtle changes in American routine. Adults today tend to prize different kind of connections than their grandparents: more of our time and attention today is spent on more intimate contacts and the most casual acquaintances. We’ve abandoned the relationships in between … middle-ring ties. And that shift, made as the result of millions of individual decisions across the whole of society, has quietly spurred the second transformation of American community … (pp. xvii-xviii)

A Brief History of the Traditional American Community

Faneuil Hall -Boston Town Meeting Site

Faneuil Hall -Boston Town Meeting Site

The traditional American community has survived some tough times, and a lot of change since 1800 or so. But one thing that has remained constant was our local community. That was the core pillar in our formative “wonder bread” years. That is where we lived with our families, we went to school, played with friends, dealt with bullies, and watched our role models. That local community, he labels it the “township”, formed our values and beliefs. We took these values, skills, and relationships into our adult world. Those values and routines, how we lived our daily life and what we expected out of others and what they could expect out of us, is what drove our economic (consumer) and political (voting/election) systems. America was a bottom-up driven society and politics.

For the most part, the township and our relationships with those who lived in the township guided our involvement in the larger world. The key to our township was that it was diverse. While our demographics might be similar, the way we thought and lived (lifestyle) was not. Our neighbor might make the same income, go to the same church, work in a similar type job–but he/she was not a clone of us. Our neighbors, in their own way, were different than us–and we had to find a way to live with them without burning their house down or vice versa. We formed relationships with people different from us; we developed skills and tolerance for those who were different than us. That was the heart and soul of the traditional American Community. For two hundred years that community adjusted to changing times and with modifications, persisted.


To demonstrate how the traditional American Community has adapted to two centuries of change, the author presents the concept of community of three important social, political–and urban–commentators: Alexis de Tocqueville, Lewis Mumford, and Jane Jacobs.

De Tocqueville “For all the distinctions Tocqueville is famous for exploring–the alacrity with which Americans formed voluntary organizations, the unique ‘quality’ of American women,–the social bonds of American life were among the first to catch his eye“. (p. 80). “American communities were oriented from the bottom up …. That distinction was most evident in their respective systems of government: French power flowed from the central government in Paris to leaders deputized to run each municipality; in the United States local residents  selected their own representatives, and power bubbled up from the municipal to the state to the federal level”. (p. 80) …. “‘townships’ as Tocqueville and others termed them, were of a more organic quality. Municipalities were integrated units determined not by a remote central authority [like a metropolitan area or economic base], but by the realities of everyday life. Through their typical routines, neighbors were accustomed to hashing out their differences. The effect was to force Americans of differing stations to interact. (p. 80). “Appropriating Tocqueville’s famous phrase ‘habits of the heart‘, Robert Bellah argued more than a century and a half later that the same social architecture had defined America’s sense of community throughout the bulk of its history.” (p. 81) …. None other than James Madison cited the ‘spirit of locality‘ as the basis of eighteenth century American political life [and Tip O’Neil 180 years later said the same: “all politics is local“].

Lewis Mumford’s  1925 “Four Migrations” asserted that American history had been defined by four migrations (1) westward expansion to the frontier; (2) economic transition from farm to factory; (3) immigration from Europe to nation’s metropolises; and (4) exodus of urban well-to-do to the suburbs (just beginning when he wrote the article). The “pull” of the last migration was single-family housing being built on the central city periphery. In those years, another train of migration-focused thought came from the Chicago School.  The Chicago School was concerned the third migration (immigrants) who were principally small town and rural in upbringing would be corrupted by the absence of small town atmosphere and relationships, the prevalence of poverty/crime, and become misfit and unable to acquire the attitudes and optimism necessary to sustain American democracy. Another historian, Thomas Bender later noted that yet another factor, the increasing separation between home and neighborhood as the nuclear family became more primary to residents in a community–which caused families to withdraw into their homes and away from community-village relationships. The combination of these trends meant that (central) cities in particular were places “where few people know your name”. The post-war industrial world “hadn’t simply changed the sorts of professions driving the economy–it had disrupted the very fabric of the American community”….. The result … was that an urban American society would see its citizens lose any devotion to the community, impelled instead simply to coexist for material convenience”. (p. 85). Immigration and the Rise of the Industrial City, then were threatening the traditional American township culture. Did it survive these threats?


So enter the scene–Jane Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities reassured us that cities/immigration didn’t alienate and separate people. “(Q)uite the opposite” so long as planners ceased their disruptive interventions to create an artificial order and sterilize the diversity and relationships forged at the neighborhood level. “The key to a vibrant (central) city … was to maintain the familiar relationships that arranged neighborhood routines into an intricate ballet. The challenge was to harness the vitality of neighborhood life without stifling it“. (85). In effect, Jacobs was arguing that urban residents had reforged the small town relationships, seemingly lost in the industrial-post-industrial era in the context of their neighborhoods. “(T)he familiarity that arose out of those interactions was the most effective salve for social isolation“. (p. 86). “The chief function of a successful district (neighborhood) … is to mediate between the indispensable, but inherently politically powerless, street neighborhoods, and the inherently powerful city as a whole“. To be effective each neighborhood had to embrace two functions, residential and commercial, and structurally they had to possess short blocks, frequent intersections, buildings of both new and old stock, and a dense concentration of people. Claude Fischer built on Jacobs and he asserted that residents clustered or pocketed themselves into neighborhoods with people they perceived as resembling/similar to themselves. He called this the “subcultural theory of urbanism” and argued “that a closer look at the lives of city residents revealed a rich tableau of smaller groups all living among one another”. (p. 87). In short, the essential, important element of dealing with diversity in our township had survived and adjusted to our mega cities and the industrial age. People learned how to live with differences among those they lived with–they dealt with and lived with the Neighbor.

To Dunkelman, all this meant the earlier de Tocqueville bottom-up America, the primacy of “township” had survived and adapted itself to the industrial central city at least through the 1980’s. But something happened in the decades following? He isolates two major changes: the increasingly affluent society and the internet/digital revolution. Combined these two forces altered the traditional interpersonal relationships of Americans and in so doing, rendered the traditional American Culture increasingly dysfunctional and led us into a stagnant economy and a polarized politics.

The Affluent Society

"John Kenneth Galbraith 1982" by Dijk, Hans van / Anefo - [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 931-9937. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons -

“John Kenneth Galbraith 1982” by Dijk, Hans van / Anefo – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 931-9937. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons –

Affluence changed what we want from government, the economy and even society. It changed what we ask for from elections–and it changed how we view the world of work [my addition to Dunkelman]. As life gets better, humans focus more on ‘choice and autonomy’ (p.73). “(I)t’s not, as we tend to assume, that democracy begets prosperity as much as that greater affluence and security spur individuals to put different emphasis on disparate sets of desires … the remarkable changes that have defined the last decades may have also had an impact on what we want both from our government [and the workplace] and, more broadly, from our interpersonal relationships” (pp. 65-68).  Dunkelman develops his position that over the last few decades especially Americans have prospered. Even the poorer among us have benefited in the quality of life, medical care, personal safety, mortality rates, and through post Great Society social programs provided a reasonable safety net. Certainly, this last point will be contested by many on the Progressive Left, but from my perspective, at least, I would be hesitant to argue that life today is worse than it was in the 1950’s.

Inequality in our present society/economy does not necessarily mean that over the last decades the material standard of life has not increased for nearly all. Rather, it means that we have not benefited equally. “(T)hree remarkable sets of advances … improvements to our prosperity, security, and longevity … might have transformed the rhythms of American life entirely on their own. Essentially, Dunkelman argues they move the typical American higher on the famous Maslovian hierarchy of needs. With our more basic needs reasonably satisfied, we move to satisfy needs previous ignored or afforded a secondary priority.

The essence of our “higher needs” is a desire to “be yourself”, “don’t pay attention to what others think”. “It suggests that we ought to listen to the voice within, rather than received wisdom … the surest path to the good life demands we cast aside the distracting influences of the outside world” and strike out on our own (p. 65). “Individualism has emerged as the country’s abiding ethic”. How could this change in values and perspective affect our sense of community involvement, individual responsibility to others, and willingness to acknowledge, never mind put up with diversity of other individuals. This strikes at the heart of the township community as Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart (1984) recognized. While in the past, individuals worried that individualism would be stifled by conformity, affluence turns the equation inside out. The effect of affluence on the traditional institutions of the township, in particular, marriage, family and parenting are transfomative as well. This evolution affected marriage. People want different things out of marriage than the Greatest Generation did, (p. 70-71) leading to an increase in divorce rates which follow from this change in marriage expectations. Our expectations for religion also have shifted profoundly (p.71). This all combines so that “The very timbre of America’s social character have been transformed as Americans have climbed the hierarchy of needs. the objects of our desire have been displaced by the prosperity and security of contemporary life“. (p. 72)

But amazingly the transformation to a culture based on individualism not community “has the counter-intuitive effect of driving us into isolated corners of society full of people just like us. Our desire to ‘be who we are’ has morphed into a desire to ‘be among people just like us” (p. 73) We now have individualism’s intersection with the Big Sort argument. We cross the nation to find people like ourselves. “In the 1950’s the concern was that too many Americans were conforming to the SAME standard: we were becoming the Wonder Bread nation. Today we don’t aspire to meet any one standard but are driven into pockets of conformity, each of which is centered around a different identity.” (p. 74) We no longer fear conformity, but ironically, seek to minimize our personal experiences with diversity and people who differ from ourselves. As Bill Bishop asserted our new residential neighbor thinks like we do and wants the same thing. One can now see how polarization can emerge from these new communities.

The Rings of Interpersonal Relationships and the Internet/Digital Revolution

Archie Bunker's Neighbor Lionel

Archie Bunker’s Neighbor Lionel

Dunkelman does not reject external change agents, but for him the critical factor is how we as an individual react and make a change “to ourselves”. His focus is on how the individual reacts to the external changes–not the external changes per se. So to answer the question of what has happened to our bottom-up, township society, he examines how the individual manages his/her personal contacts and relationships.

Sparing the reader the theory behind this (and there is theoretical research he develops to support his model), Dunkelman states that each of us has three rings of interpersonal contacts and relationships: close/personal-first ring and the outer end, or most distant contacts “forged across a shared interest or experience” but which do not transmit personal and daily information–“no real sense of what was happening to you’–think Facebook friends. Last of all the middle ring ….

The middle ring contacts/relationships were the most important to the American township. The middle ring included your old high school/neighborhood friends, fellow workers, and the friends you have on your hockey travel club, or bowling league, or church social–and your neighbors. These were “people with whom an individual is familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close” (p. 97). When I think of middle ring, I think of my childhood next door neighbor’s, Al and Jack. Both were fathers of kids of my age with whom I was close friends. They shared the same demographics and would be included in the same demographic categories, more or less, that my father would have–but the three couldn’t have been more different. Bozo was cop, a brute and a drunk; Al was the friendly but hard-nosed guy who, whenever he saw you, told you exactly what he thought of you, and the world as he knew it. We tried to avoid both–(we actually kind of liked Al, but we didn’t have the time to listen to him). We were seldom successful. Those were my “middle ring neighbors” when I was a ten year old. Generations mixed it up, and none of us, even including sports, had anything in common. Almost sixty years later I remember them both; in their own ways they shaped me.

200px-Unico_Anello One Ring

Dunkelman answers the question of what happened to the bottom-up, township community society by looking at what happened to these three rings of interpersonal contact-how have they changed in the last couple of decades. His starting point, and key focus is provided by Robert Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone (2000) which Dunkelman believes first captured the key elements of the transformation.  The decline of community-based organizations, the Elks and Knights of Columbus, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the American Legion, the church social, the wake or viewing–the bowling league were usually an important element of one’s middle ring community contacts. The essence of the Vanishing Neighbor argument is that, for a number of reasons, principally the Internet, the middle rings of our interpersonal relationships have dramatically lessened over the last twenty years. “The same influences that have worked to flatten the globe … have made strangers of the people next door“. (p. 240).

That leaves most people with lots of contact with the first, ring of family and a few close friends, and an outer ring of mostly like-minded, shared interest Internet-based contacts. The critical, more diverse, yet unavoidable face-to-face middle ring contacts were mostly lost. Middle ring relationships to persist over time require tolerance; importantly they personalize the other side of the argument/policy position. They become real people, not a stereotype for a TV comic. For the most part you just can’t walk away from middle ring contacts and you have to listen to their side of the argument.

This loss of middle range interpersonal relationships got a second whammy over the last few decades. A whammy more subtle and more powerful than the effects of Internet linkages with outer ring contacts. The demographics of communities began to gradually change. People who thought alike, belonged to the same social class, believed in religion or not, began to live together. In blocks, then neighborhoods, the communities changed and many became relatively homogeneous in terms of life-style, religion, personal values, and politics. This is Bill Bishop’s, the Big Sort all over again.

Dunkelman grabs onto the Big Sort argument in a big way (p. 147). His American “township” has altered its substance and changed its character. Now the people who live near are just like us, think the same way, want the same things, same education, live the same life-style, and go to church or not. To the extent middle ring relationships form with neighbors, the neighbors are often clones of us–if not like us, we avoid them. For Dunkelman, there can be nothing worse than the homogenization of middle ring interpersonal relationships.  We may well worship diversity, but we no longer live it. “Exit Tocqueville”! We have entered in a new age with a redefined sense of community. The Big Sort killed Tocqueville’s township Whether we live in a central city neighborhood, a suburb, or an unincorporated area, that community has probably become attitudinally a mere collection of Stepford wives, husbands, partners, consumers and tax payers. In the transformation we lost the skills necessary for tolerance, compromise, and living with diversity.

What this translates into is that “the other side”, “them”–those different than you— become depersonalized, alien-like, from another world. They hold strange, incorrect, often immoral beliefs. Our heroes and our devils are no longer real people we can see, touch, talk to, or walk in their shoes. They exist in our “virtual” minds”. They are reflections of largely Internet-formed images. There is less likely to be two sides to an argument; instead, there is truth and correctness. There are facts. Facts which everybody knows, and with which one cannot disagree. If you do disagree, even a little, you are alone–except for your outer ring relationships, of course.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Washington D.C. Neighbors

Washington D.C. Neighbors

Dunkleman believes that three factors will determine whether we’ll be able to adapt. the first is the extent to which networks [the Internet] continue to subsume [replace] townships.  The second … is how capable we are of establishing patterns in networked society that reflect the benefit of township familiarity. And the third is our capacity to re-form [not reform] the political system to fit the twenty-first century community. (p. 195) In essence will the effects of the Internet continue to be negative toward middle ring contacts and will be continue to insist on living in homogenous communities. If not, then our politics, political institutions, a ton of our public policy will need to be reshaped to better fit with the new realities.

Where does this leave the state/sub-state economic developer and how, does this affect local policy-making? Beltway and academic/think tank policy types are not very sensitive as to how local politics and local culture enter into economic development policy–so they don’t care. But to sub-state economic development especially, the Vanishing Neighbor stuff can easily enter into our policy implementation. Has local “stuff” changed in a way congruent with Vanishing Neighbor, i.e. loss of middle-ring contacts and preference to seek our those who share our needs and interests and an aversion to those who don’t. Have we sorted ourselves out and work in communities  that think like us? Is it impossible to get people into a room to work things out? Obviously, I can’t answer that. The reader must figure it out herself–but …!

As a possible help to economic developers, two observations. Policy implementation at the sub-state level involves very healthy doses of working with middle-ring contacts. It you are sitting in your office and deal pretty exclusively with fellow economic developers, or on the internet searching out fellow travelers, maybe a warning bell should sound. For those of us in one-to-three person departments, this can be a real problem. A second observation is that Dunkelman senses that today’s culture advocates diversity rhetorically, but rejects diversity in practice. How does a homogeneous community affect policy-making–closed to new ideas? Finally, have you gotten yourself into, let’s call it the Obama position, where you are pretty isolated, and more of less restricted to throwing bombs at the other guys? That’s polarization, no matter what political party one belongs to–and the fact that it is two-sided means the national culture is mirrored in your local culture. In short, take a look at things in your community, does the Vanishing Neighbor make sense?

Also, if Vanishing Neighbor is correct, citizen involvement in local policy-making has been severely, and negatively, affected. Like all politics, those who are gored come out and yell, and special interests which are affected by one’s programs are consistently involved. Those behaviors are long-standing, and not likely to change. Local policy-making has always tended toward being closed. One wonders if the reduction in middle-ring contacts has changed this relationship in some way?

"Bob Dylan - The Times They Are a-Changin'" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Bob Dylan – The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

My chief concern is that we have sorted ourselves out geographically. There really does seem, from my vantage point, to exist a red state and blue state path to economic development. Most of the policy stuff from academia and think tanks are blue state-ish–very blue state-ish, and so those in the red states might be in hunkering down mode–waiting for their day. State economic developers really do exist in that red state/blue state world, and have done so for quite a long time. Given the power of the Governor and the overlap of economic development into his/her policy agenda, that situation is pretty much inescapable. That is both the strength and weakness of state-level economic development. One party states can get locked into stuff that doesn’t work, and competitive states have shifting economic development programs.

Pity the state in which the Governor has made economic development the central element of her/his platform–and its election year. Where there is a partisan difference between the local area and the state government, it would seem that compromise is even more unlikely. While Big Cities can mirror state-level dynamics, I am focusing on state governments because over the last decade, it seems to me that states have assumed both leadership and dominance over sub-state economic development. If that is the case, the concerns of Vanishing Neighbor may well be quite apt and relevant to the local levels. It may be that state dominance and a diminishing local autonomy is a manifestation of the Vanishing Neighbor in sub-state economic development?

Like Dunkelman, I tend to agree with the Big Sort argument that our fellow citizens sort themselves out residentially. Looking at the trends in election/attitudinal data, it is hard not to believe in Big Sort stuff. What that means for local economic development policy-making is unclear to me, to be honest, but it would seem that the governance of local economic developers would sooner or later exert a consistent consensus into the policy-making. If the economic development organization is responsive, then that is that–if not, then it had better have a strong constituency or a big savings account if it hopes to outlast a community political culture that is working against your sense of proper economic development policy.

There has been a strong movement toward professionalization within economic development over the last several decades. An economic developer can be “trained” as to the correct set of programs and approach which reflects an “expert’s expertise”. How that squares with a local, fairly monolithic, political culture and policy process may translate into a lot of square pegs in round holes. Educating your leaders may be an attractive strategy, but good luck–your leaders reflect something larger than a simple lack of the professional perspective.

Anyway, as Bob Dylan said a half-century ago “Times, they are a-changing”. If so, it may be that your neighbor may be of little help in your adjustment. At least he won’t be asking for a cup of sugar anymore.





  1. It takes a village to raise us all | professorenos

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