‘Out of the Spheres of the Private and the Moral’

Social anthropologist Minh Nguyen analyses, how care is organized under market socialism. Care, she states, must be analysed as public and political.

Since 2019 Professor Dr. Minh Nguyen, Social Anthropologist at Bielefeld University, has been working on the project “Welfare for Migrant Factory Workers: Moral Struggles and Politics of Care under Market Socialism” (WelfareStruggles), funded as Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon research and innovation program. From 26 to 27 March the final conference of the project will take place at ZiF. The conference which Minh Nguyen convenes together with Sociologist Dr. Jingyu Mao from Edinburgh University is called “The Politics of Care under Market Socialism. Labour Mobility, Global Capital and Changing Welfare Systems in Vietnam and China”. In this interview, Minh Nguyen draws first conclusions of her project.

How did you become interested in the question of care under market socialism?

My research has always had something do with care in one way or another, from my doctoral research on paid domestic service and my post-doctoral research on household organisation of care by rural migrants in Vietnam, to my later research on rural welfare and the ERC funded research on welfare provision for migrant factory workers in China and Vietnam. The research questions I ask are often about how different groups of people approach care from different social positions and in different power constellations, as citizens, as individuals, and as members of a community.

My understanding of care has broadened from an earlier focus on caring and being cared for as part of interpersonal relationships, for example between family members or between domestic workers and their employers, to a notion of care as central to social, political and moral life as concepts of justice and freedom. In this approach, care does not merely refer to what is needed by the sick, the aged, the infirm – in other word the activity of caring for others and the distribution of the labour involved, or Pflege in German – but to complex processes shaping the institutional and individual arrangements of care giving and receiving in human society.

Building on the scholarship on the ethics of care, Joan Tronto, Roberta Zavoretti and I have defined care as processes of creating, sustaining and reproducing bodies, selves and social relationships[1]. This definition brings care out of the spheres of the private and the moral, where care is deemed to belong as a feminine coded set of activities, into the public and political spheres. As we decry the prevalent notion of the autonomous and self-interested economic man, the homo economicus, ethics of care scholars underscore vulnerability and interdependence as that which define us as humans and the need for democratic deliberations and institutions in building the political and social foundations for care. At the same time, we also recognise that care is a moral value that the state and the market alike actively deploy for purposes of authoritarian control, marketization, and exploitation. That’s why we commonly hear authoritarian states or exploitative corporations claiming to be caring for their citizens or their workers, customers and the environment. So, it is a complex field of politics in which different conceptions of personhood, social relationships and societies come into tension with each other.

Professor Dr Minh Nguyen, exploring the politics of care under Market Socialism, convenes the final conference of her ERC-funded project WelfareStruggles at ZiF. Photo: Universtät Bielefeld.

Welfare is at heart a relationship of care, and our research project on the provision of welfare for workers employed at global factories in China and Vietnam has been guided by the notion of politics of care as the central concept for the inquiry. It refers to the negotiations and power dynamics at the societal, the institutional and the personal levels that go into shaping the care of the labour force. For example, how differing conceptions of labour, whether a part of the social person or as a commodity, a means of production, shape welfare arrangements; or how the individual ethics of self-responsibility and self-enterprise lead ordinary people to adopt marketised care solutions such as private life insurance.

I am an anthropologist, and ethnographic fieldwork is very important for anthropological research – our empirical work often involves long-term occupation and interactions with the lives and social worlds of the people we study in specific settings. My fieldwork so far has mostly been in Vietnam and China, but increasingly I am interested in including Laos as another context of market socialism. 

What is the most important difference in the politics of care under market socialism and under liberalism/capitalism?

This is a very good question, but not so easy to answer, because we are talking about political economic systems that do not stay the same, while the politics of care also evolve along with changing societies and human conditions.

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Socio-Ecological Reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas

Researchers from the Constructive Advanced Thinking Initivative (CAT) worked at ZiF

In February ZiF hosted a special group of young researchers: Maria Manso from Lusófona University, Lisbon, Portugal, Rieke Hansen from Geisenheim University, Germany, Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, and Manuel Beißler from Leibniz University Hannover, Germany, worked at ZiF on “Socio-ecological reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas”. The group is founded by a special initiative of 12 European Institutes for Advanced Study, called CAT: Constructive Advanced Thinking. The initiative aims to foster networks of excellent early career researchers committed to developing new ideas in order to understand and tackle current or emerging societal challenges. The program funds short stays and research visits of international and interdisciplinary teams of three to five early career researchers at the participating IAS. 

The CAT-group “Socio-ecological reshaping of European Cities and Metropolitan Areas” has been working together since 2021. The researchers have been meeting twice a year in one of the participating institutes and holding monthly online-meetings to keep in contact about the progress of their project to address socio-ecological challenges in urban areas. 

The CAT-Group: Manuel Beißler, Rieke Hansen, Maria Manso and Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry
(C) Universität Bielefeld/P. Ottendörfer

European cities are faced with environmental problems related to the quality of air and water, biodiversity loss, and advancing climate change, the researchers explain. This implies that municipalities are being pressured to tackle social-economic issues such as social cohesion and justice or the need to develop sustainable economic and mobility systems, in order to provide social well-being to inhabitants. The CAT-group analyses the ways in which Nature-based Solutions (NbS), such as green infrastructures, can play a major role in solving these issues. “The green wall has become a placative example”, explains Manuel Beißler. The group is analyzing large scale systems like a public park as well as pocket gardens and other forms of urban greening.

All members of the group, although working on similar topics, have different perspectives on NbS. “As a group we are interested in the socio-ecological perspective, in how we can integrate the social and the ecological concerns to successfully implement NbS in an urban setting”, explains Maria Manso, who is the PI of the group. “We speak the same language and we are aware of the same problem, but we have different perspectives, that is very enriching.”

Maria Manso is an architect interested in Nature-based Solutions as applied to buildings, including the use of sustainable materials and systems design. Her research interests are the design and analysis of NbS, with a special interest in green roofs and green walls, their benefits and costs. She is also looking to find alternative ways to create more sustainable solutions.

Rieke Hansen is a landscape architect working on NbS from a strategic city-wide perspective. Her research is concerned with questions of planning and designing multifunctional and resilient urban green infrastructure that provides multiple social and ecological benefits.

Andrea Nóblega Carriquiry has a background in architecture, sustainable development and international cooperation. Her research focuses on the eco-social and eco-political facets of NbS and how they can contribute to more just and sustainable development strategies.

Manuel Beißler has a background in environmental engineering. In his research on complex societal challenges such as flooding and biodiversity loss he is combining Geographic Information Systems and modeling. He tries to answer these challenges with the planning and implementation of multifunctional NbS.

Joana Guerrin, who is a researcher in Political Science at the French National Research Institute for Food, Agriculture and Environment (INRAE), is also part of the group but could not take part in the stay at ZiF.

The term “Nature-based Solution” is not without problems, as the researchers explain. “Politics of course want quick and simple solutions, but for us the question is, how we can use the term in a meaningful way”, explains Maria Manso. “Sometime the problem is that you do something good like planting a tree, but you do not deal with the root of the problem, i.e. carbon emission”, adds Rieke Hansen. “And it is important to be aware of what people expect from NbS and if and how they are willing to accept changes in their environment.”

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Rationality, Objectivity, and Autonomy in the Legal Sphere

by Åsa Wettergren , Sara Uhnoo and Moa Bladini (Gothenburg University)

In November, Professor Åsa Wettergren and Associate Professor Sara Uhnoo from the Department of Sociology and Work Science, and Moa Bladini, Associate Professor from the Law Department at Gothenburg University, Sweden, worked at ZiF as the ZiF Visiting Group “Consent-Based Rape Legislation in Practice: Challenging Judicial Core Values”. In their research project Rape or consent? Effects of the new rape legislation on legal reasoning and practice (financed by the Swedish Riksbankens Jubileumsfond 2020-2023) they had collected loads of data and with a book contract landed at Bristol University Press they needed time to begin the analysis and start writing. The book will be published in June 2025 and has the title Challenging Judicial Core values – Consent Based Rape legislation in Practice. In this interview the researchers talk about the challenges of their project.

Is the consent‐based rape law embedded in a nonrealistic, idealized context of rational decision‐making and action?

To answer this question, we need to briefly explain our theoretical perspective. Our analysis is based on an emotion-sociological framework that views cognition as always also emotional and thus emotion and cognition are often mutually supportive. Emotions have an epistemic function and help cognition to separate relevant from irrelevant information, and to focus attention when carrying out specific tasks. The problem with the Western judicial system is that it rests on a modern conventional separation of emotion and cognition, referring emotions to the private or psychological sphere, and often associated with irrational and non-professional behavior. However, not even Max Weber made such a drastic separation between rationality and emotions. In his writings about bureaucracy and the modern law it is instead quite clear that he talks about a specific management of emotions to achieve the civil servant’s neutral and objective treatment of citizens, clients, etc. In the emotion-sociological perspective we call this a rationalist way of organizing and managing emotions, or a rationalist emotional regime. In this regime emotions that are conducive to rational action are effective in the background, just below consciousness, orienting the actor towards matters of relevance and away from distractions. Furthermore, what we may call epistemic – or knowledge seeking – emotions help legal actors to determine when they know enough and are ready to make a decision. For instance, curiosity and uncertainty are conducive to focused attention and wanting to inquire more about a specific issue. Satisfaction and certainty close the inquiry. Feeling certain is also comfortable and therefore if you have reached the point of certainty, you may emotionally and cognitively resist opening up for further inquiry even if new information shows up. We have found that when legal professionals evaluate evidence, doubt and skepticism are systematically maintained to avoid jumping to premature conclusions (before the trial is over for instance). This certainty/doubt spiral is thus conducive to an objective and rational evaluation of all evidence. Even if emotions sustain rational action in this way, however, they may not always lead to correct decisions. This is because emotional processes over time and accumulated work experience become part of the routine and habitual ways of doing things. In the Swedish judicial system, emotions are treated with suspicion (because they are seen as unprofessional) to a degree which is exceptional in an international perspective. Although all western legal systems do believe that emotions can be kept out of rational decision-making, Swedish legal professionals are perhaps particularly unused to reflecting and discussing their epistemic or other background emotions with one another. This means that they do not reflect upon the origin of their certainty or doubt, and this may lead to biased decisions.

Is that especially the case in rape legislation or is it typical also for other areas of legislation?

The consent-based rape law in fact challenges the habitual ways of evaluating evidence because it requires legal professionals to assess stories, and not just objective factual evidence or forensic data. The latter often accompanies the charges, but because the legal task is to evaluate if sex was (in)voluntary on behalf of the claimant, and whether the defendant intentionally ignored that the claimant was not participating voluntary, the hard evidence is usually secondary. For instance, if both parties agree that they had sex, which is often the case, the forensic find of semen traces is not per se incriminating. But the claimant says it was involuntary and the defendant says it was voluntary. Evaluating the credibility of the claimant’s and the defendant’s stories makes legal professionals uncomfortable because they cannot draw on their habituated method of determining if someone is guilty or not, by adding for instance objective fact to objective fact. This brings attention to lacks in legal education, such as methods for analyzing and interpreting qualitative data. It also highlights the inadequacy of the standard legal approach to a crime, which is, generally, to look at it as an isolated event, cut loose from its context and the situated relations of power and status. According to the new rape legislation, judges are now supposed to determine if consent was established or not between parties by considering the context, both relationally, spatially, and temporally. How they do it, however, is up to each individual judge. Hence judges often resort to common sense and “social facts”, which are in turn carriers of rape myths and stereotypes.

Åsa Wettergren, Sara Uhnoo and Moa Bladini. Foto: ZiF

In sum, one might say that the consent-based rape law highlights shortcomings in modern perceptions of what the law is and what it should do. Modern law is built on a simplified and dated understanding of the relation between theory (the law) and empirical data (reality as we know it). When a criminal case builds on a series of objective evidence it is easy to keep up the illusion that legal constructions can simply be pasted onto a particular crime – cut out from the messy real world and neatly encoded in legal terminology. The illusion starts to crumble when the same epistemic approach is applied to evidence that demand skills in scientific interpretive analysis of qualitative empirical data. Learning such skills, moreover, would challenge the traditional juridical notion of the legal subject’s autonomous free will. Understanding someone’s action in a specific situation as navigating complex relationships in particular space and time, runs contrary to the view that action is the outcome of an isolated subject’s clear and conscious decisions.

How can legislation deal better with how people really act and decide?

This is something we are working on as we do the analysis for the book. Given that the legal system is a conservative and slow-changing institution (which is probably a good thing in a constitutional perspective) we cannot hope for more than initializing a discussion among the ranks of legal professionals. We hope to change the current debate from a critique of the “bad quality of the evidence,“ or the “comparatively low standards of evaluating the evidence” in rape cases, to a discussion about the type of evidence and appropriate methods to assess them. This basically means introducing theory of science in law through questions about ontology and epistemology.

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Experimentieren in offenen Systemen: Was lehren Reallabore?

Reallabore sind eine recht neue Art, Wissenschaft zu betreiben. Sie erfreuen sich wachsender Beliebtheit, die Bundesregierung erarbeitet gerade ein Gesetz zu ihrer Förderung. Wie Reallabore arbeiten und welche Art von Erkenntnis sie generieren, damit befasst sich die Kooperationsgruppe „Experimentieren in offenen Systemen– zur Epistemologie von Reallaboren“, die derzeit am ZiF arbeitet. Vor dem nächsten Workshop der Gruppe, der am 21. und 22. Oktober stattfindet, haben wir mit dem Soziologen und Technikphilosophen Wolfgang Krohn (Bielefeld) gesprochen, der die Gruppe gemeinsam mit drei Kolleginnen und Kollegen leitet: dem Nachhaltigkeitsforscher Matthias Bergmann (Frankfurt a.M.), dem Wissenschafts- und Techniksoziologen Stefan Böschen und der  Wissenschaftsphilosophin Gabriele Gramelsberger (beide RWTH Aachen).

Herr Krohn, was ist eigentlich ein Reallabor?

Man kann es gut durch den Gegenbegriff beschreiben, das wissenschaftliche Labor. In einem wissenschaftlichen Labor werden Experimente unter besonderen, isolierten Bedingungen durchgeführt. Die Wissenschaftler und Wissenschaftlerinnen möchten genau wissen, was sie messen, und schirmen die Experimente dazu von störenden Einflüssen ab. In Reallaboren gibt es diese Abgrenzung zur wirklichen Welt nicht von vornherein, daher kommt der Name. Es sind Labore in der realen Welt, dort findet die Forschung statt.

Ein zweiter Unterschied ist, dass Reallabore fast immer mit Beteiligung von nicht-wissenschaftlichen Personen stattfinden, also Menschen aus der Bevölkerung, aus Interessengruppen, sie arbeiten zusammen mit den Forscherinnen und Forschern.

Das wiederum bedeutet, dass man nicht mehr klar zwischen Forschung und Anwendungspraxis unterscheiden kann. Die klassische Ansicht ist, dass die Wissenschaft Ergebnisse erzeugt, die dann anderswo verwendet werden können. In einem Reallabor ist die Praxis Teil des Forschungsprozesses.

(Design: Büro Paschetag/C. Mehl)

Das heißt auch, dass alle Beteiligten ein Risiko eingehen: sich auf einen offenen Forschungsprozess einzulassen, bei dem man noch nicht weiß, was herauskommt. Wir sind es eigentlich gewohnt, dass die Politik mit Plänen kommt, die dann ausgeführt werden. In den Innovationsprozessen, wie sie durch Reallabore in Gang gesetzt werden, verläuft nicht immer alles so geradlinig, wie man es vielleicht gehofft hatte, weil es sich eben um Forschung handelt und experimentelle Forschung immer mit dem Risiko des Scheiterns oder Nicht-so-gut-Gelingens verbunden ist. Das ist durchaus auch eine Zumutung für die Gruppen, die daran beteiligt sind.

Ist ein Reallabor also so etwas wie Feldforschung?

Nein, der eine Unterschied besteht im Einbeziehen von nicht-wissenschaftlichen Bevölkerungsgruppen in die Forschungsplanung und -durchführung. Ein anderer darin, dass es sehr stark um Interventionen geht, also um Projektpläne, um Vorhaben. Die Feldforschung ist ja eher passiv in dem Sinne, dass man als Forscher daneben sitzt und beobachtet, was passiert. In Reallaboren geht es in erster Linie um Gestaltung, wir nennen das, was dort geschieht, auch „Gestaltungsexperimente“.

Befassen sich Reallabore mit bestimmten Themen?

Es sind gewiss nicht alle Forschungsfragen geeignet für Reallabore. Und wir wollen den Standarddisziplinen auch überhaupt nicht ins Gehege kommen. In Reallaboren geht es zum einen um realweltliche Probleme, die sich nicht in erster Linie der Wissenschaft stellen, sondern der Gesellschaft, etwa ein Projekt zur Stadtteilentwicklung, ein neues Schulprojekt oder die klimaneutrale Energieentwicklung in einer Gemeinde. Das sind zwar auch wissenschaftlich interessante Fragen, aber der Problemdruck kommt nicht aus dem innerwissenschaftlichen Fortschrittsdenken, sondern aus den gesellschaftlichen Problemlagen.

Bei den meisten Reallaboren geht es aktuell um Nachhaltigkeitsprojekte, aber natürlich kann man das Konzept auch in anderen Bereichen anwenden, bei der Gesundheitsvorsorge, in der Industrie oder an der Schnittstelle von Informatik und Gesellschaft etwa.

Was ist der Vorteil von Reallaboren?

Wenn es um den Praxisbezug von Wissenschaft geht, hat sich gezeigt, dass es keine gute Strategie ist, erst im Labor zu forschen und dann mit einer fertigen Lösung vor Ort aufzutreten. Es ist viel effektiver und auch vom Erkenntnisertrag viel gehaltvoller, eine Entwicklung möglichst direkt unter realen Bedingungen zu betrachten und voranzubringen.

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Making a Hidden Discipline Visible

An interdisciplinary group of researchers is preparing a handbook on the history of modern chemistry. Their workshop at ZiF is called “Chemical Connections: Studying Interdisciplinarity Through the History of a Discipline,” and is convened by Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld University) and Paulina Gennermann (University of Heidelberg). Here, the conveners give some insights into their project.

Could you first define what you mean by interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity?

Carsten Reinhardt: The definitions are pretty flexible, but for me, interdisciplinarity is the interaction between scientific disciplines. Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, means the connections of a scientific discipline with other social sectors, most importantly, industry. But you might also think of the sphere of medicine or of politics. Transdisciplinarity means everything where science actually affects social development.

What made me curious about your project was the idea of looking at interdisciplinarity through the lens of one discipline. There seems to be a contradiction, how does it fit together?

Carsten Reinhardt: I think chemistry is a form of inter-discipline or trans-discipline, as chemistry is basically everywhere. If you want to find it, you will find it, and it affects a lot of other disciplines. So we can have a look on chemistry through the lens of physics or through the lens of molecular biology. And chemistry is also an industry, it influences society, it is a technology and an approach that actually manipulates the world around us. In our view, you cannot study chemistry just with a disciplinary focus. You would miss much, arguably most, of what chemistry is about if you don’t consider the other sides. Actually, chemistry in this way is the perfect case to study the interlinkages of science with the world.

Is chemistry in this respect different from other disciplines?

Paulina Gennermann: If you say physics, it’s pretty clear what you mean. And if you say biology, it’s also pretty clear what you mean. But with chemistry, it’s not. And we are interested in what is actually causing this semantic uncertainty and how it has come about. Another aspectthat makes chemistry special is its perception by the society, how people are looking at chemistry. A lot of people are thinking immediately of industry.

Carsten Reinhardt: At the same time, chemistry is in a way invisible, we call it the hidden science. If you look in the media, physics and biology with all their variants are much more present than chemistry is. Genetic engineering, evolution, the atomic bomb, all that is present. Chemistry rarely is. But it has certainly an equal impact on society, we just do not perceive it as influential as the other disciplines.

Why is chemistry invisible?

Carsten Reinhardt: First of all, chemistry and especially the chemical industry avoid publicity as much as they can, because they know it is mostly bad publicity. Chemistry has a troubled relationship with society and the media ­- and for a reason.

Paulina Gennermann: I would add, it is even more important and also more interesting for us on the epistemic level. Chemistry is a kind of a toolbox for the other sciences. It is a set of techniques that other disciplines employ, adapt and develop. It’s linked to the level of manipulation that chemistry is the specialist in, which is the molecular dimension. In manipulating this intermediate dimension, not the inner parts of atoms, not the larger organisms, but the world of molecules. And this has been very successful.

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Mit Reibungsverlusten: Wissenschaft lenkt Politik – Politik lenkt Wissenschaft

Ein Interview mit dem Volkswirt Guido Bünstorf (Kassel) und dem Philosophen Cornelis Menke (Mainz), Fellows der ZiF-Kooperationsgruppe ›Anreizstrukturen, Steuerungssysteme und Erkenntnisqualität‹, über die Wahrnehmung der Wissenschaft in der Corona-Pandemie und die Möglichkeiten, Wissenschaft zu lenken.

Von Manuela Lenzen

Viele Menschen waren während der Pandemie irritiert, dass es auch unter Forschenden Meinungsverschiedenheiten gibt und Aussagen immer wieder revidiert wurden. Hat das Bild der Wissenschaft in der Öffentlichkeit gelitten?

Guido Bünstorf: Es ist erstaunlich, dass das so negativ gesehen wird. Wir hatten innerhalb eines Jahres mehrere effektive Impfstoffe, die ihren Ursprung in der öffentlich geförderten Grundlagenforschung haben. Und wir haben ein Startup in Deutschland, das daran ganz zentral beteiligt war. Eigentlich ist das eine Erfolgsgeschichte: für die Forschung, für den personellen Transfer von den Hochschulen in die Unternehmen und für die Unternehmensgründungen. Da dürfte sich die Wissenschaft ruhig auf die Schultern klopfen und die Öffentlichkeit dürfte mitklopfen.

Cornelis Menke: Ich sehe das auch eher positiv. In der Pandemie gab es die Möglichkeit, einem Forschungsprozess zuzuschauen, mit den verschiedenen Akteuren und allem Hin und Her. Gänzliche Einmütigkeit darf man auch in der Wissenschaft nicht erwarten, auch dies dürfte deutlich geworden sein. Viele hadern ein wenig mit der Wissenschaft, einfach, weil die Empfehlungen ihnen unerwünscht sind. Aber insgesamt bin ich erstaunt, wie positiv die Wissenschaft in der öffentlichen Wahrnehmung wegkommt Zumal es ja auch nicht einfach ›die Wissenschaft‹ gibt. Die Empfehlungen aus der Sicht der Virologie stimmen ja nicht unbedingt mit denen etwa aus der Soziologie überein. Die einen sprechen von Viren, die anderen von den Herausforderungen des Homeschoolings.

Müsste stärker vermittelt werden, was Wissenschaft ausmacht und wie sie funktioniert?

Guido Bünstorf: In der Pandemie hat die Öffentlichkeit zum ersten Mal über den Prozess von Wissenschaft diskutiert. Ich kann mich nicht erinnern, zuvor jemals in einem Publikumsmedium darüber gelesen zu haben, ob eine Studie schon durch den Peer Review gegangen oder ein Preprint ist. Der Anspruch der Wissenschaft ist ja, verlässliches Wissen zu generieren. Dass stärker in der Öffentlichkeit angekommen ist, wie dieses Wissen hergestellt und geprüft wird, finde ich sehr positiv. Da hatten wir in der Vergangenheit in der Tat Defizite. Diese Vorstellung, dass alles, was jemand sagt, der einen Doktortitel hat, stimmt, ist eben ein bisschen naiv. Meine Hoffnung wäre, dass wir der Öffentlichkeit vermitteln können, wie sie solche Diskussion lesen muss. Auch, was Anhaltspunkte dafür sind, dass ein Argument besser oder schlechter ist. Die mediale Aufbereitung der Wissenschaft sehe ich aber durchaus auch kritisch, auch unabhängig von der Pandemie. Die Expertinnen und Experten, die ich als Ökonomen und Ökonominnen in Talkshows sehe, sind häufig nicht diejenige, deren Arbeiten ich mit Interesse lese. Und die Börsenberichterstattung im Fernsehen finde ich im besten Fall belustigend. Zudem wird in den Medien immer wieder über Studien berichtet, die aus Unternehmensberatungen kommen, als seien es wissenschaftliche Arbeiten. Das ist Öffentlichkeitsarbeit dieser Unternehmen, mit der sie ihre Namen lancieren, die aber meistens keinen wissenschaftlichen Wert haben. Ich würde mir wünschen, wir würden eine klarere Grenze zwischen dem ziehen, was legitimen wissenschaftlichen Anspruch erheben kann, und anderen Publikationen.

Cornelis Menke: Auf jeden Fall ist die Pandemie ein guter Anlass, um noch einmal über evidenzbasierte Politik und Evidenz selbst nachzudenken. Man muss die Vorstellung infrage stellen, dass erst die Wissenschaft das feste Fundament der Erkenntnis liefert und die Politik dann darauf aufbaut. Oft muss man eben handeln, bevor dieses Wissen vorliegt, und auch mit verändertem Wissen muss man umgehen. Das gilt nicht nur für die Virologie.

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Europe Loses the AI Race – And That’s a Good Thing!

by Benjamin Paaßen (Berlin), Joachim Wündisch (Düsseldorf) & Torbjørn Cunis (Stuttgart), Fellows of the Young ZiF

It appears that a race for the most powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is in progress. Major corporations in the US and China compete for ever larger data sets, more refined algorithms, and faster computing clusters1. The European Union is left behind: While European research groups are present at major AI conferences, no European institution is even close to having the resources of Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, or Tencent. Most breakthroughs in recent years, such as solving image recognition challenges, large language models, or games, have been achieved by US-based companies2. In these kinds of tasks, EU research may never catch up. However, the question is: Should we even want to?

Artificial intelligence via human recklessness

Developments in the last five years have shown time and again that a reckless application of AI methods can cause serious ethical problems. In 2016, ProPublica revealed that a system employed in the US criminal justice system judged Black defendants to be more dangerous than white defendants, even if this turned out to be wrong3. In 2018, Amazon scrapped a planned system for pre-screening of job applications because it predicted that men would make better software engineers than women4. In the same year, Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru showed that commercially available face recognition technology was much less accurate for darker-skinned people compared to light-skinned people, and especially inaccurate for darker-skinned women5. Even seemingly innocent language models appear to learn stereotypes embedded in human language, e. g., when reasoning that ‘Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker’6. It appears that inaccurate model assumptions, biased training data, or questionable embedding into the broader social context can make AI decisions at least as problematic as human decisions.

Bigger is not always better

More broadly, there is a tension between current cutting-edge AI and EU policy goals. The lion’s share of resources in the AI race has been spent on a tiny subset of AI, namely deep neural networks. Deep neural networks are large-scale computers with billions of free parameters that are automatically optimized over weeks or months on terrabytes of data in giant computing clusters. Such systems have, undoubtedly, achieved unprecedented success in image processing tasks – such as face recognition – or language processing tasks – such as automated translation7. However, their sheer size and complexity makes their decisions almost impossible to explain, which is problematic as soon as decisions concern humans89. Further, the amount of energy consumed will likely complicate the fight against climate change10. The insatiable need for more training data has oftentimes led to questionable methods of data acquisition, such as collecting photos of millions of people without their consent [10] or scraping large-scale text data from the web, including harmful stereotypes and hate speech11. Finally, it appears that deep neural networks are particularly hard to protect against hacking attacks, making their application a potential security risk1213.

A vision for better AI in the EU

In summary, it appears that the current AI race focuses almost single-mindedly on achieving higher performance measures without much regard for environmental, legal, or ethical concerns. This kind of AI is not suitable to the EU context. Rather, EU research should focus on different goals: Using as little energy, time, and personal data as possible, making models explainable, and achieving AI that respects the autonomy and dignity of human beings14151617. Ironically, an AI subject to these constraints may even be more practically useful because savings in energy, time, and data, in combination with explainability and ethical acceptability are likely to outweigh a few percentage points of benchmark performance1819. Further, the EU is uniquely positioned to advance this vision: It arguably has the strictest data and privacy protections, including a rule requiring automatic decision-making systems to explain themselves to the user20. Further, it has released guidelines for trustworthy AI which point the way towards a better AI21. And it has a strong, publicly funded research community, which can drive research into better AI even without being led astray by narrow economic incentives. There is a long way to go, though, and success is not guaranteed. More efforts must be made to translate research prototypes into open-source software and datasets that can fuel applications. Beyond innovation in AI itself, a strong programme from the social sciences and the humanities is needed to translate an abstract vision for better AI into actionable guidelines for every single project which attempts to apply AI to human lives. Engineers should not be left alone with ethical considerations.

Overall, AI has the potential to propel humanity towards both dystopian and utopian futures. How it affects us depends on how it is built and how it is embedded into society. Without justification, the performance of AI systems – as measured by narrow metrics – is treated as synonymous with its social utility. Europe should not fall into this trap. Instead, it should move off the race-track and start running orthogonally, towards better AI.


  1. Savage (2020). The race to the top among the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence. nature 588, pp. 102-104. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-03409-8 []
  2. LeCun, Bengio, and Hinton (2015). Deep learning. nature 521, pp. 436-444. doi:10.1038/nature14539 []
  3. Angwin et al. (2016). Machine Bias. ProPublica. []
  4. Dastin (2018). Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women. Reuters. []
  5. Buolamwini and Gebru (2018). Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification. Proceedings of the 1st Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, p. 77-91. []
  6. Bolukbasi et al. (2016). Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker? Debiasing Word Embeddings. Proceedings of the 30th International Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, p. 4356–4364. https://arxiv.org/abs/1607.06520 []
  7. LeCun, Bengio, and Hinton (2015). Deep learning. nature 521, pp. 436-444. doi:10.1038/nature14539 []
  8. Guidotti et al. (2018). A Survey of Methods for Explaining Black Box Models. ACM Computing Surveys, 2018(93). doi:10.1145/3236009 []
  9. Brkan (2019). Do algorithms rule the world? Algorithmic decision-making and data protection in the framework of the GDPR and beyond. International Journal of Law and Information Technology, 27, p. 91-121. []
  10. Bender et al. (2021). On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜 Proceedings of the 2021 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, p. 610-623. doi:10.1145/3442188.3445922 []
  11. Bender et al. (2021). On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜 Proceedings of the 2021 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, p. 610-623. doi:10.1145/3442188.3445922 []
  12. Akhtar and Mian (2018). Threat of Adversarial Attacks on Deep Learning in Computer Vision: A Survey. IEEE Access (6), pp. 14410 – 14430. doi:10.1109/ACCESS.2018.2807385 []
  13. Hamon, Junklewitz, and Sanchez (2020). Robustness and Explainability of Artificial Intelligence. JRC Technical Report. []
  14. Hamon, Junklewitz, and Sanchez (2020). Robustness and Explainability of Artificial Intelligence. JRC Technical Report. []
  15. Craglia et al. (2018). Artificial Intelligence: A European Perspective. Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. doi:10.2760/11251 []
  16. Edwards (2020). European researchers look beyond deep learning. Engineering & Technology. []
  17. Ala-Pietilä et al. (2018). Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI. High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence. https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/ai-alliance-consultation []
  18. Craglia et al. (2018). Artificial Intelligence: A European Perspective. Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. doi:10.2760/11251 []
  19. Edwards (2020). European researchers look beyond deep learning. Engineering & Technology. []
  20. Brkan (2019). Do algorithms rule the world? Algorithmic decision-making and data protection in the framework of the GDPR and beyond. International Journal of Law and Information Technology, 27, p. 91-121. []
  21. Ala-Pietilä et al. (2018). Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI. High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence. https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/ai-alliance-consultation []

Digitalization, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence is not about superintelligences taking over power as suggested by science fiction movies. AI is today mainly about algorithms trained on large amounts of data which are used in economy, the military, healthcare and more and more spheres of our daily live. We are just beginning to understand how they will change the world. Analysing the potentials and risks coming with this technology is an interdisciplinary challenge which has already been taken up by various ZiF-projects and will also play a major role in its future research agenda, e.g., in the research group “Economic and legal challenges in the advent of smart products” which will start in October. Some of the results of these undertakings will be posted here and we invite for a for a lively discussion.

The following text emerged from a workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Ethics organized by the ZiF’s postdoctoral network, the Young ZiF.

How Will / Should the World Change? Analyses, Answers, and Further Questions From All Around the World

by Véronique Zanetti (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany),
G. Ary Plonski (UBIAS, IEA Sao Paulo, Brazil)
and Britta Padberg (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany )

When we started the blog series “How will / should the world change?” at the beginning of June, there was still hope that somehow the situation would be improving after the Northern hemisphere summer. Now we have to confront the fact that the opposite is true, especially in the worldwide perspective taken by this series. All the more important we believe are the 24 essays by researchers from 12 countries all around the world that we published during the last weeks.

For us, as editors of this little series, above all, the multiplicity of perspectives turned out to be eye-opening and enriching. The essays dealt with diverse topics such as food supply systems, science denialism, the democratization of scientific knowledge, data privacy, the incapability of nation states to cope with the pandemic, and the uneven gender distribution of the burdens caused by the pandemic.

Masks are required e.g. in France, but Muslim veils remain forbidden; in Hong Kong, wearing masks became a political statement, since the government fears that mask wearing could make the identification of protesters more difficult, as Wai Yip HO (Hong Kong, Paris) pointed out. Aasiya Qadir (Kashmir) and Afroz Shah (Darussalam) made us aware that in many regions of the world, lockdowns and school closings are frequent phenomena due to political conflicts, e.g. in Kashmir.

The essays draw dystopias of a world in which people meet only virtually to avoid infection but also to prevent solidarization of any kind, as sketched by Jose Gracia Bondia (San José, Costa Rica), and utopias “as the best way to overcome the corona crisis”, as evoked by Renato Janine Ribeiro (Sao Paulo, Brazil).

Without doubt, the corona crisis has turned out to be a kind of political stage, spotlighting the problems and opportunities of our societies, as described by Paula Diehl (Kiel, Germany). Some of the essays collected here analyze those problems, but there are also those who see alternative worlds already being thought through and revealed by the pandemic, as in the contribution by Erella Shadmi (Beit Berl, Israel). 

We expected Institutes for Advanced Studies worldwide to be rich pools to fish for visionary ideas and scientific observations concerning the pandemic, and the vast choice of articles following our call more than confirmed our expectation. So, at the end of this little series, facing the “great wide-open future”, which comic strip artist Oliver Grajewksi (Berlin) illustrated for us with his sharpened pen, we would like to cordially thank everybody who has submitted an essay. If this series contributes to widening the perspective on the challenges the pandemic is posing to societies and individuals worldwide and provides a forum for discussing some of the ideas that are currently developed all around the world, our goals have been achieved.

The Corona Crisis as a Political Stage

by Paula Diehl, Political Theory, History of Ideas and Political Culture, University of Kiel, Germany

The Stage

The Corona crisis seems to spotlight the problems and opportunities of our representative democracy. It provides a scene on which the shortcomings of our democracy become visible, but also one on which different political discourses and visions of the future can be enacted. In addition to protests, economic, political and social projects enter this stage as well. 

However, this stage is subject to particularly bright lighting. It is a glaring light that makes critical aspects of our representative democracy and capitalist society visible. The bright Corona light has, in particular, illuminated the problems in the health care system. Industrial nations such as Italy, Spain or the USA were facing a collapse of their medical supply. Structural deficits such as undersized capacities of hospitals, insufficient supply of medical materials such as masks, ventilators or medication as well as poorly paid and overwhelmed personnel were laid bare in the pandemic. In Spain and Northern Italy triage was applied, granting only the fittest patients the right to medical treatment. Older and already ill individuals could no longer be guaranteed a hospital bed or the use of a ventilator. The contradictions between biopolitics and democratic rights, which already exist, became exacerbated in the pandemic. In this context, the deadly consequences of an austerity policy caused by the state’s withdrawal from critical infrastructure were also exposed. In nations such as the USA, where there is no universal or mandatory health insurance and inequalities are especially apparent in the health sector, a particular selection takes place. Those who cannot afford medical treatment face the choice of either putting themselves and their families in debt or not being treated. Yet, due to their living and working conditions, they are often risk patients and suffer from diabetes, heart problems or other diseases.[1] The savings potential in the health care sector and the privatization of primary health care do not pay off in times of a pandemic.   Even worse, they increase the danger of Covid-19. Refrigerated trucks storing corpses in front of New York City hospitals, mass funerals in Brazil or dead bodies lying openly on the streets of Guayaquil provide the grim images of this crisis.

As a result of the pandemic, further vulnerabilities of politics and society are exposed. The shortage of supplies, on the one hand, and the obliteration of groceries, on the other, lay bare the problems of an agriculture that mainly services wholesale markets, focuses on monoculture and is entirely dependent on the transport and logistics sector. Due to the lockdown, considerable amounts of food perished in the field while the consumers, who partly already suffer economically from the Corona crisis, have to pay significantly more for the same products. In Germany alone, the price for vegetables has increased since the beginning of the crisis on average by 26%, in some cases such as zucchini even by 92%. In the US, farmers destroyed or gave away their potatoes, which are grown in huge monocultures, in some cases even 60% of the harvest. In the Netherlands, 13% of the potato production was disposed during the Corona crisis. Milk, eggs and other unprocessed foods were also destroyed. The focus on monocultures and long-distance transportation is not only problematic ecologically, in the case of the pandemic, it is also a risk for the economy and for supplying the population.

A third problem made visible by Corona is the flexibilization of the labor market in an attempt to reduce  labor costs and make businesses more competitive. According to Thomas Piketty, this is one of the most important sources for the increase of social inequalities in Europe. In Germany, the reforms of the Agenda 2010 led to precarious working conditions of many employees and enabled the boom of sub-contractors, a situation that is now at the core of the Corona outbreaks in the meat industry. When in mid-May 2020 twenty-nine Corona cases were discovered in a meat-packing plant in Lower Saxony, and shortly thereafter an even larger outbreak occurred in Rheda-Wiedenbrück near Gütersloh, the deplorable working and living conditions of the mainly Eastern European workers came to light:  unpaid extra working hours and packed housing with mouldy walls are part of this exploitation system. Such conditions exist in the agricultural sector and cruise ship tourism as well. It was not as if nobody was aware of the precarious working and living conditions of these workers.  They have been criticized for many years, but Corona makes the problem visible and the danger of infections for society imminent.  Again, the pandemic illuminates how unequal our society is. Whether in Paris, Bangladesh, Rio de Janeiro or Gütersloh, the virus spreads especially in places where dense and unhealthy living conditions are predominant, thus among the poor. While for the upper middle class the lockdown provoked a decelaration of everyday life as well as stress relief, inhabitants of the banlieues, favelas and ghettoes in large cities experienced a nightmare.

Crisis scenario and logic of prevention

Yet the crisis of the system was not the only issue that became visible on the Corona stage. Especially during the lockdown, and also later on, the state’s logic of prevention – legitimated by medical and scientific expertise – stood at center stage. States have the minimal obligation to ensure safety and peace. According to Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan must use all means necessary for this purpose. In modern times, this duty is extended to the preservation of the population’s health. Michel Foucault pointed out this new paradigm when he spoke of biopolitics. In democracy, though, the state has another duty: it needs to guarantee the fundamental rights and liberties of each individual. Security (Hobbes) and administration of life (Foucault), on the one hand, and the democratic guarantee of fundamental rights and liberties, on the other, stand in tension to each other. A democratic state must not, like the Leviathan, make use of all means, and its biopolitical measures are counterbalanced by human rights and ethics. Checks and balances, mass media and citizens’ fundamental rights limit the power of the state. Decisions have to pass parliamentary committees and are discussed in public. However, in an extreme situation there is no time for this. The state has to act quickly, and this action shifts the balance of power in favour of the Leviathan and biopolitics. The state now functions within the mode of prevention, which is legitimized by the imminent catastrophe made plausible by the crisis scenario. 

Continue reading “The Corona Crisis as a Political Stage”

The Ways After

by José Gracia Bondia, Physics, University of Costa Rica

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” (W. B. Yeats, 1920)

“COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder” (P. Khanna & K. Khemka, 2020).

1. The bare facts

1a. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

SARS-Cov-2 is not at all like the agents of the “common cold”. Bigger, much more contagious, endowed with a many-in-one ability for wrecking havoc in different organs and functions of the human body, this virus is the stuff of nightmares. Well-informed scientists have argued that it evolved from bats to human hosts by natural processes; and that remains the most likely hypothesis. This does not negate that Wuhan houses the most advanced-level laboratories devoted to experiments with viruses in China. And that those experiments try to augment the toxicity of the pathogen and its ability to enter body cells. Both American officials and Chinese diplomats have engaged in the blame game about the zero-point of corona. Something is certain: “infodemics” is here to stay.

There were plenty of Cassandras, to be sure. “The coming plague” and many other works were easily prescient. To no avail: politicians do not deal in likely future risks. The prestigious Center of Disease Control at Atlanta used to be the spearhead of the fight against epidemics the world over. Barely propelled during the Obama Administration, and starved of funds by the current one, it made a botch in the present emergency.

1b. The answers to the pandemic: under the Eurocentric lens

Amidst the gallop of the white horse of Pestilence in the West, one could hear a ripping of robes: about the battering that “Third-World” countries were about to suffer.

The reality is more nuanced. Besides the Asiatic “usual suspects”: Taiwan, Hong-Kong, South Korea, China itself… New Zealand is being hailed as the shiny example of containment. As of late May, it had had around 1,500 certified cases and about 25 five deaths. Now, this iaffluent country is essentially made of two very big, sparsely populated faraway islands, relatively easy to close. Take Costa Rica, with a larger population, crammed into a space smaller by a factor of more than five. What is worse, with porous borders with two hotbeds of coronavirus (Nicaragua’s official figures there are not worth the paper they are written on). Its figures by the same dates: 1,000+ thousand certified cases, 10 deaths (12 at the time of writing). In Africa: Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana… have developed testing kits and impressive strategies, overlooked among the Western fanfare. South Africa deployed high-technology against the virus. Senegal started preparing against the pandemic in January. Vietnam stands apart in the whole world by the number of tests performed by number of inhabitants. It closed its borders already in January. To put matters in perspective: towards the end of April Germany had effected around twelve tests per each detected infection; Vietnam had done by then over 600 (!). No deceases reported. This might seem a bit rich; but certainly there the virus was stopped on its tracks.

My favorite example is Kerala in India. Home to 35 million people (fairly small by Indian continental standards), this state has long being governed by a benign brand of Communism. It enjoys a strong public health system. As soon as late January it started to organize. At some point nearly 170,000 people were quarantined. Kerala is no island, its hinterland is the huge Indian subcontinent, where matters are certainly less tidy. As of mid-May there had been four casualties. For sure, people at Kerala trusted their sanitary authorities after a victorious fight just two years ago against Nipah — a less contagious, but far deadlier virus.

In summary: the main weapon against Corona was speed, that is, political vim and political acumen. When “The Economist” writes that USA is not doing too badly, since its fatalities rates compare with Europe’s of two months ago, something is seriously amiss in the Western perspective. All the big countries in the EU, and a good number of the smaller ones, acted late. As did the WHO itself. (Germany is touted as a partial exception. According to refined “generative” epidemiological models, it was just lucky, i.e., there is an unknown factor.)

Continue reading “The Ways After”

Obligatory Mask, Forbidden Mask: Rigidity and Flexibility in the Brave New Normal*

by Wai Yip Ho, Sociology, Islamic Studies, Nantes Institutes for Advanced Study, France, Education University of Hong Kong

France: Obligatory Masks and Observant Muslims

After lifting the national lockdown caused by the outbreak of Covid-19, France made mask-wearing mandatory in public transport and high schools. The new mandate of mask-wearing and social distancing suddenly halts French traditional intimate cheek-kiss ‘la bise’ greetings, while unexpectedly encouraging artistic creativity in designing home-made masks. Nevertheless, the law of 2011 on banning face veiling mostly worn by Muslim women remains unchanged. Apparently, making mask-wearing essential but at the same time banning face veil sounds counter-intuitive and inconsistent. One of the unintended consequences of the outbreak of Covid-19 apparently exposed how the French policy of secularism (laïcité) is excluding veiled Muslim women in the public sphere. The new law of making mask-wearing obligatory to contain the spread of virus but upholding the Republic’s values of uncovering the face in public places reveals a new social ambiguity. As a result of the new era of relative normlessness (Emile Durkheim’s notion of ‘Anomie’) after the outbreak of Covid-19, it initiates the French society negotiating new practices of interpersonal intimacy and social distancing. Most importantly, the new social condition opens an uncharted path and platform of dialogue in pursing common values, identity and social solidarity in France.

Hong Kong: Self-Defence and State Surveillance

After the intense street conflicts between protestors and police over the controversial Extradition Bill, the outbreak of the pandemia spreading from Wuhan was an additional challenge for Hong Kong. Haunted by the nightmare of the SARS virus causing 286 deaths in 2003 plus social distrust to government’s initial guideline of mask-wearing being unnecessary, civil society transformed the painful lessons into a quick collective self-defence practice of mask-wearing. Hong Kong even takes pride along Taiwan to be counted as one of the successful Asian examples in subduing Covid-19. But the key factor of success largely attributes to the voluntary mask-wearing of civil society. Despite mask-wearing is proved effective in containing spreading of the virus, Hong Kong High Court surprisingly maintains prohibiting mask-wearing on the grounds of preventing masked radical protestors from vandalizing the city, as the government imposed an emergency law banning protestors wearing masks in public demonstrations. But for many protestors, the voluntary practice of mask-wearing is both: self-protection from the virus, but also a symbolic stand against state surveillance. Many protestors were wearing masks, and some of them deliberately destroyed street smart lamp posts, because they suspect that biometric data collected by the installed facial recognition technology enabling to identify protectors’ identity would be send back to the Chinese central government.

After the Covid-19 Crisis: Bringing Humanity towards ‘Brave New Normal’

In this short essay, it is through briefly illustrating the cases of France and Hong Kong how authorities conflictingly approve the necessity of a generalized use of masks in containing the spike of Covid-19 and at the same time de-legitimize mask-wearing when it poses a challenge to the legitimacy of the state’s rule. The rigidity and failure of the WHO and of governments in swiftly containing the virus outbreak leads to social distrust, liberating global civil society’s creativity and flexibility to react. The lack of clear agreed social norms or even contradictory claims of mask-wearing implies the new social condition of normlessness. As the protesting slogan in Chile, ‘No volveremos a la normalidad, porque’ la normalidad era el problema’ (‘We won’t return to normality, because normality was the problem’) suggests, the French society initiates a journey of soul-searching in seeking how to bring together the new intimate distance and the Republic’s values after the outbreak of Covid-19, whereas in Hong Kong protestors have identified a protest logic of ‘Be Water’ in new social solidarity through mask-wearing in resistance against state surveillance.

In conclusion, after the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis there will be no reverse to normal. It awakens humanity in transition from normality to the indeterminate challenges of a ‘Brave New Normal’.

* This short reflection piece is to acknowledge and express my gratitude to the invitation as the Fellow of the 3rd UBIAS Intercontinental Academia (ICA3) – Laws: Rigidity and Dynamics (2018-19) at Singapore, Princeton and Birmingham.

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