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Chapter 2. The Encyclopédie

What is knowledge if it isn't true and verifiable? The Encyclopédie project of the original Enlightenment tackled this question with extraordinary ambition and accomplishment, paving the way for one of today's greatest free resources, Wikipedia.

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 2. The Encyclopédie

When the ideas that matter most to us—liberals, democrats, progressives, republicans, all in the original sense of the words—were first put forward in society in order to . . . change society, they were advanced first and foremost in print. New rules, new definitions, new codicils of human and civil rights that undergird many of the things that we value today, that undergird the rights we know we have—rights, now that we have won them, that in turn protect us in the fight for more—had as their heart text and its delivery mechanism, the printing press, beating in every struggle of the original Enlightenment. The ubiquity of text today—words and writing are everywhere in our everyday lives—has helped to render the magical centrality of printing, of the mechanical duplication of word and image, for the networks of ideas that matter most to us as more of an “unacknowledged revolution” than a violent one: an “elusive transformation.”1

Some thirty years after Johannes Gutenberg built the first printing workshop in Germany, that country had print shops in only forty towns. By 1500, a thousand printing presses were in operation in Western Europe, and they had produced roughly 8 million books. But by the end of the century, William Tyndale’s century, between 150 and 200 million books were circulating.2 The French Revolution—an ultimate moment of the Enlightenment—featured the liberation of the Bastille prison in central Paris, an act whose significance has often been lambasted as overblown because, as one historian encapsulates the matter, that fortress “contained only seven residents: four men accused of forgery, two ‘mental cases’ and the Marquis de Sade.” But the 1789 liberation involved more than people: it involved ideas; it involved ghosts; it involved freeing some texts. “Over eight hundred authors, printers, booksellers, and print dealers had been incarcerated [in the Bastille] between 1600 and 1756,” the historians tell us, as well as “thousands of copies of the Encyclopédie, the masterpiece of the Enlightenment, between 1770 and 1776.”3 And that Encyclopédie, the fetish of this book, was enormous. It comprised 28 folio volumes, 71,818 articles, 2,885 illustration plates, and more than 20 million words—and, of course, beneath its “bulk,” as its physical presence has been described (callous!), an “epistemological shift that transformed the topography of everything known to man.”4

The publishers of the original brochure—or “prospectus,” as it was then called—for one of the greatest media enterprises of all time, one of the original truth engines, was built upon a fib, a bit of fraud, even a “whopping lie.”5 Seeking subscribers for the Encyclopédie project—a complete catalog of the world’s knowledge, as it was defined back in the eighteenth century—the publishers wanted you to shell out 60 French livres, or “pounds” (named for pounds of silver, though the backing had disappeared) by the first deadline of May 1751, then 36 pounds more that June, and then you’d be in: you’d receive Volume 1. Twenty-four pounds more in December, please, for Volume 2. An additional 36 by June again, and Volume 3. Thirty-six more in December, Volume 4; and so on. Ten volumes in all by December 1755, and all for a total of 280 pounds—this at a time when your work would bring you 2 (for unskilled labor) to 6 (skilled labor) pounds a day.6

Le Breton publishers printed eight thousand elegant brochures to sell it. The Encyclopédie would be printed on the same paper (in the 1700s, this was a thing; watch a family comparison shop today for a television at Best Buy, weighing screen sizes and resolutions, and imagine . . .) as the brochure you were holding, they promised, and in the same classic folio design. Each volume would contain some 240 pages. The notes and indices would come last.

Moreover, they said:

L’OUVRAGE que nous annonçons, n’est plus un Ouvrage à faire. Le Manuscrit & les Desseins en sont complets. Nous pouvons assurer qu’il n’aura pas moins de huit Volumes, & de six cens Planches, & que les Volumes se succéderont sans interruption.7

But in fact the manuscript wasn’t in. The designs hadn’t been commissioned. What became, through the force of will of hundreds of Enlightenment personalities, some money, and some luck, a project (initially) of 22 million words, 74,000 articles, 18,000 pages of text, and 28 volumes in all (17 of them text, 11 of them engraved illustrations)—what became right up there, after William Tyndale’s and then others’ work with the books of the Bible, the greatest project of knowledge assembly, compilation, and distribution then yet exercised—was still on the drawing board, its writers and editors, its business plan, its creative team, and, not least, its finances still far from established. Denis Diderot, one of its masterminds (and fresh out of jail, to boot), was huckstering with his sales language during that November of 1750, hoping against hope—“Le Manuscrit & les Desseins en sont complets,” indeed!—that capital might accumulate in a form sufficient to launch the project.

The original, less ambitious plan that Le Breton had conceived—and announced—was to publish a translation of a more basic English encyclopedia—a dictionary, really—compiled by Ephraim Chambers and published in England in 1728. But the plan, for a shorter five-volume set, changed—and grew.8

Funny, that a project we shall describe as such a sterling contribution to knowledge and fact should have been conceived in language so false and untrue. And ironic, that the sales brochure would carry on it a legend that it had been published by a printer licensed by the king, under the required royal permission—the permission, in other words, of the power that its merchandise was, ultimately, to destroy.

The prospectus was not that radical a document. It set forth to “inform the public” about the work that the Enlightenment team—the Encyclopédistes, as they would come to be known—was “presenting.” Diderot hailed the contribution of the modest dictionary, as a form, to art and science, praised the major dictionaries and plans for encyclopedias that had been published up to then, and then called for a bigger kind of mega-dictionary, much larger than any dictionary or encyclopedia that had been published to date. In the name of the editorial team (which, again, was still to be assembled), he called for (and promised) a new scope for the new reference work: addressing and embracing, cataloging and presenting knowledge across all of the sciences, the liberal arts, and the mechanical arts.

To accomplish this, the Encyclopédistes had assembled artisans and scholars, he said, and assigned appropriate articles to all of them.9 “The different writers whose talents we have employed have put the stamp of their particular styles on each article, as well as that of the style proper to the subject matter and the object of their part,” he wrote. They paid particular attention to the “mechanical arts,” as he called them—saying that their writing “impelled us to go directly to the workers.”

We approached the most capable of them in Paris and in the realm. We took the trouble of going into their shops, of questioning them, or writing at their dictation, of developing their thoughts and of drawing therefrom the terms peculiar to their professions. . . . [S]everal times we had to get possession of the machines, to construct them, and to put a hand to the work. It was necessary to become apprentices, so to speak, and to manufacture some poor objects ourselves in order to learn how to teach others the way good specimens are made.10

The writing of the Encyclopédie was eventually to span almost twenty thousand articles over more than twenty years (1751–1777)—but even at the start the editors could foresee some of the challenges:

A technique of chemistry will not have the same tone as the description of ancient baths and theaters; the operations of a locksmith will not be set forth in the same way as the studies of a theologian on a point of dogma or discipline. Each thing has its coloration, and the various branches of knowledge would become indistinct if they were reduced to a certain uniformity.

When it was reproduced in full, as part of the encyclopedia proper, the prospectus would carry a folded map of knowledge as the Encyclopédistes conceived it—and it was this majestic, comprehensive vision, based on and inspired by works of Francis Bacon, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and others, that pointed, in 1750, to the incendiary. This was a genealogical tree, a diagram of knowledge phylogenesis showing where and how forms of knowledge grow, sprung from the three human faculties of memory (wherefrom history is derived), reason (philosophy), and imagination (poetry and fine arts). But it also suggested that new understandings of the human condition could be created by interrogating philosophy, religion, politics, and society all together, and not one (say, for example, religion) singly, or one more so than the others. There was a seedling sense, under this tree, that a social order needed to grow more—dare one say it—logical, reasonable, reasoned: in a word, rational. Diderot considered Bacon the originator of the empirical method, and in one of the articles—“Baconisme”—that he contributed to the Encyclopédie he praised the man as the project’s intellectual forefather. And why not, as Bacon had hoped in his time to assemble a sweeping encyclopedia, too, with the modest-enough title of The Phenomena of the Universe; or a Natural and Experimental History for the Foundation of Philosophy.11

The prospectus announced that this new work would be, as we say today, “fact-based”; there would be an underlying and overarching commitment on the part of all contributors and the work as a whole to the verification of its source materials. This commitment to reference—what Princeton scholar Anthony Grafton has called the “curious history” of the footnote—is the foundation of modern scholarly communication. It’s the foundation of what today’s Wikipedia terms verifiability, and in many ways the foundation for truth in knowledge and society.12

Verification is potentially “a long and painful process,” Diderot declared.

We have tried as much as possible to avoid this inconvenience by citing directly, in the body of the articles, the authors on whose evidence we have relied and by quoting their own text when it is necessary.

We have everywhere compared opinions, weighed reasons, and proposed means of doubting or of escaping from doubt; at times we have even settled contested matters. . . . Facts are cited, experiments compared, and methods elaborated . . . in order to excite genius to open unknown routes, and to advance onward to new discoveries, using the place where great men have ended their careers as the first step.

What this meant in practice was revolutionary: there would be no accepted truths but for those that could be proven and cited.

Fact-based versus faith- and belief-based—the start and spark of the Enlightenment.

Diderot also addressed the scope of the project in one other dimension—that of time, and of the Encyclopédistes’ commitment to rendering something that would take a lot of it and last for all the rest. “It took centuries to make a beginning,” he wrote, referring to the time it had taken to prepare the foundation for the work, “and it will take centuries to bring it to an end.” “What an advantage it would have been for our fathers and for us, if the works of the ancient peoples, the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, the Romans, etc., had been transmitted in an encyclopedic work, which had also set forth the true principles of their languages.” He expressed the hope that he and his team were making that contribution for us today; he speaks to us, quite directly, from centuries ago. “May the Encyclopedia become a sanctuary,” he wrote, “where the knowledge of many is protected from time and from revolutions. Will we not be more than flattered to have laid its foundations?

The prospectus was not a radical document. But it became something radical. Indeed, when its text, edited some and added to, was published the following year as the grand opening essay in the first one-thousand-page volume of the Encyclopédie, the text of that initial discourse, taken altogether, became the first colossal manifesto of human progress (in an . . . encyclopedia!), the greatest single undertaking of the Enlightenment; indeed, as one scholar as written: “It is the Enlightenment, insofar as one can make a claim for any single work.”13 This Preliminary Discourse (1751) is now compared to the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and The Communist Manifesto (1848). It is—it instantly became—“one of the great victories for the human spirit and the printed word.”14 The Encyclopédie would present to the world 17 volumes of text, each volume containing on average 900 pages, each page (in two columns) containing roughly 1,200 words—some 20 million words in all. But it was through the Preliminary Discourse, itself 45 pages long, that “for the first time large numbers of people were coming to the bracing conclusion that the progress of humanity could be carried forward indefinitely in this world, and men of letters felt they were the prime movers of that progress.”15

Volume I (A–Azymites) appeared in 1751, as did II (B–Cézimbra). Volume III (Cha–Consécration) appeared in 1753; IV (Conseil–Dizier, Saint) in 1754; V (Do–Esymnete) in 1755; VI (Et–Fné) in 1756; and VII (Foang–Gythium) in 1757, all in Paris; and Volumes VIII through XVII (H–Z) in 1765. The eleven volumes of plates appeared between 1762 and 1772.

And the articles: oh!

A sampling:

agnus scythicus.
autorité politique.
belbuch & zeombuch.
chef d’oeuvre.
égalité naturelle.
idole, idolâtre, idolâtrie.
intendants et commissaires.
liberté naturelle.
liberté civile.
liberté politique.
loi fundamentale.
modification, modifier, modificatif, modifiable.
monarchie. (Are we getting it?)
monarchie absolue.
monarchie élective.
monarchie limitée. (Good!)
obeissance. (Work with me here!)
peuple, le.
propagation de l’evangile.
prostituer, prostitution.
taille a volonté.
traite des negres.

The text of the Encyclopédie included thousands of articles, on everything from asparagus to the zodiac, as the leading translation effort into English has described it. As a historian of the project has explained, by organizing the work’s articles alphabetically—as opposed to thematically—the editors “implicitly rejected the long-standing separation of monarchic, aristocratic, and religious values” from “those associated with bourgeois culture and the country’s trades.”17 And at the core of the work were pages, even lines, that rocked and cracked the eighteenth-century intellectual seismograph.

The words and phrases—single words!—that William Tyndale had newly translated in the Bible had likewise rocked the sixteenth-century establishment—church, state, and especially Thomas More—a hundred ways to Sunday. The Bible’s texts before Tyndale spoke of the priest, the Church, charity, and doing penance; Tyndale swept all that away.

He translated the Greek word presbuteros as “elder,” whereas the church had always translated it as “priest”; he translated agape as “love,” where the church had always had it as “charity”; he translated ekklesia as “congregation,” whereas the church had had it as “church”; and he translated exomologeo as “acknowledge,” where the church used “confess.” Above all, he translated the Greek word metanoeo as “repent.” Metanoeo is a classical and New Testament Greek word meaning “a change in the mind.” It means that sort of complete change that can come over people’s minds and change the direction of their lives. The Latin church had always translated that as paenitentiam agite, meaning “do penance.” Now, to do penance involves paying money, so they didn’t want the New Testament to be saying “repent.” But if you look in Luke 17:3–4, Christ says “repent.” In Acts 2:37, the people asked Peter and the apostles, “What shall we do?” The Greek in verse 38 says “repent.” The church, however, says “do penance.”18

The bravado is extraordinary. Tyndale said of the church and to it:

Penance is a word of their own forging, to deceive us withal, as many others are. In the scripture we find poenitentia, “repentance;” agite poenitentiam, “do repent;” poeniteat vos, “let it repent you.” . . . Of repentance they have made penance, to blind the people, and to make them think that they must take pains, and do some holy deeds, to make satisfaction for their sins; name such as they enjoin them. As thou mayest see in the chronicles, when great kings and tyrants came to themselves, and had conscience of their wicked deeds; then the bishops coupled them, not to Christ, but unto the pope, and preached the pope unto them; and made them to submit themselves, and also their realms, unto the holy father the pope, and to take penance, as they call it; that is to say, such injunctions as the pope and bishops would command them to do, to build abbeys, to endote them with livelihood, to be prayed for for ever, and to give them exemptions and privilege and license to do whatever they lust unpunished. . . .

The mother church, and the high altar, must have somewhat in every testament. Offerings at priests’ first masses. Item, no man professed, of whatsoever religion it be, but he must bring somewhat. The hallowing, or rather conjuring of churches, chapels, altars, super-altars, chalice, vestments, and bells. Then book, bell, candlestick, organs, chalice, vestments, copes, altar-cloths, surplices, towels, basins, ewers, ship. Censer, and all manner ornament must be found them freely; they will not give a mite thereunto. Last of all, what swarms of begging friars are there! The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the friar scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth; we lack but a butcher to pull off the skin.19

He gave people the wherewithal to challenge the church’s “vain superstition,” “false doctrine,” filthy lusts,” “proud ambition,” and “unsatiable covetousness.” We thus can speak of what one of Tyndale’s great modern interpreters has described as the “power of articulate contention” that Tyndale’s translation work “induced in the common man.” By creating “an intimate appeal to the single reader, each and every one,” by “removing the encrustations of centuries of turgid and stagnant religious doctrine,” and by “freeing the original prisoner-text from an expropriatory Church,” Tyndale’s texts as well as the very act of assembling and publishing them produced nothing less than a superpower, a moral force, amazingly, that would be “enough to uphold individuals in daring acts of dissent against overwhelming spiritual and political authority and to sustain these individuals during the sufferings that would follow such acts.” He also knew that the Bible, for the most part, did not have readers; it had listeners; he knew that for the original writers of the Bible, it was “clearly of paramount importance to show people relating to each other through speech,” and so he focused on the power of that speech; and he knew that “the dimension of sound would have been all the more urgent for the first audiences to whom these texts were addressed, who would of course not have read them silently but rather would have listened to them.”

Tyndale opened the door to a Scripture that could belong to Everyman, that could be fashioned and refashioned to suit mundane needs and wants. It was now possible to entertain the idea of a book as something other than monolithic granite, as something as pliable, and yet coherent, as mercury. A Word-to-person symmetry had been proposed, one that would put man on equal footing with his book, in contradistinction to the mother Church, a tome hidden away for prelatical eyes only.

“Scripture,” moreover, “now spoke not only to the individual, but more importantly to the new society of individuals who were beginning to be united through their common access to Scripture in the vernacular. . . . The democratization of the Bible is precisely what Tyndale was after.”20

The Encyclopédie did the same—in ways that seem subtle today, but it smote orthodoxy with steel sledgehammers. Key articles in among the thousands—on topics that can be grouped under “religion,” say, or “philosophy,” or “politics and society,” challenged the government and the church, even as the censors watched. The article on “Reason,” for example, told us that

No proposition can be accepted as divine revelation if it contradicts what is known to us, either by immediate intuition, as in the case of self-evident propositions, or by obvious deductions of reason, as in demonstrations.

—and the clerics were not fans. An equally impassioned condemnation of the slave trade made few friends among any who had a hand in the business:

Slave trade is the purchase of Negroes made by Europeans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfortunate men as slaves in their colonies. This purchase of Negroes to reduce them into slavery is a negotiation that violates all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights.21

Swipes at the monarchy and the church appeared where you might expect—articles on CONSCIENCE, LIBERTÉ DE; FANATISME; TOLÉRANCE; CROISADES—but further, the article on CHAOS contained Enlightenment swipes at the Biblical myth, and FORTUNE on the gross inequalities of wealth in eighteenth-century Europe. Diderot and his colleagues—the most progressive of them, anyway—could be found “putting their bolder thoughts into short and relatively out of the way articles or quite often simply by working them into longer and more prominent ones.”22 Thus, in articles on XENXUS and XOXODINS—about Japanese religion—punches at the Jesuits and the Jansenists, and in explanations of Indian and Mexican religious experiences—SHAVVARKA, YPAINA—potshots at the pope.23 “The learned article ‘Cannibals’ ended with the mischievous cross-reference: ‘See Eucharist, Communion, Altar, etc.’” Diderot’s modern biographer explains that approximately twenty-three thousand articles, or about one-third of the total, had at least one cross-reference. “The total number of links—some articles had five or six—reached almost 62,000.”24

“The ambition of the Encyclopédie,” as one history tells us, “was to change the way people thought.” 

The audacity of this project is brought into focus when considered in relation to the very limited nature of formal education available in eighteenth-century Europe. Universities were accessible only to a privileged elite and their curricula—inherited from the Middle Ages—remained devoted largely to the study of ancient Greek and Latin authors, law, medicine and, most important, theology. The Encyclopédie, by contrast, reached a European-wide audience. By 1789, it is estimated that 24,000 complete sets in various formats and editions had been printed, more than half of which were distributed outside France.25

It wasn’t only the words and ideas inside the volumes that effected this change. It was the process of taking advantage of print, of commerce, of networks of contributors, printers, and distributors, to situate a major locus of knowledge and authority outside existing power institutions. Not only were contributors and editors and printers and purveyors critical of these power institutions, but they became, by the force of their interrogations and example, a stronger and stronger power institution themselves. Publishing itself was strictly censored—book publishers and pamphleteers were required to have a publishing license, or privilège, from the state, or some kind of permission tacite; licenses could be, and often were, revoked at any minute.26 Indeed, the Encyclopédie’s license was pulled several times, and its permission to publish was always under threat.27 The very idea that knowledge could be so established—and further, published with cross-references to other knowledge within the same emerging institution!—was itself a remarkable thing. In an age when “to follow one’s reason wherever it led was a crime in the eyes of the orthodox,” here “was a work which breathed a new spirit, one which was hostile to tradition and authority, which sought to subject all beliefs and institutions to a searching examination.”28

The Encyclopédie project, in a word, shifted the giant spotlights of knowledge storage and distribution away from monolithic religious orders and behemoths of state-run and state-controlled institutions and shined them on something new—something that looked, in the bright glare, like something that we the people could, one day, control.29 Remember, as one scholar tells us,

[t]he scholarly societies of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, while hoping to contribute to material progress, were concerned primarily with the erudite and professional activities of closeted savants and did not dream of transforming the conditions of the world in a fundamental way.30

The 1750 prospectus had been run off with a foldout of a chart of knowledge—a diagram of understanding, a topic map or XML schema, a summary of the principles, the Principia, of human knowledge—composed and drawn by Francis Bacon and printed as a bonus takeaway, like a pennant or a decal you received free with your mid-eighteenth-century direct-mail solicitation.31 Much as Google would be developed by two gentlemen fixated—coming, as they did, out of the information-science world—on the value and reference of citation for ranking the verifiability of published information, the Encyclopédie, too, was built from a reference mindset. Articles across the enormous project cited one another—further solidifying the status of the collected volumes as themselves an ultimate and independent reference. Furthermore, the contributors were identified—by name, initials, codes. Not all of the contributors were major figures like Voltaire or Rousseau; indeed, an annoyed Diderot would write in 1768 that

[i]n addition to some excellent people, there were others who were weak, mediocre, and totally incompetent. A jumbled work resulted, where a schoolboy’s rough draft is found next to a masterpiece, a stupidity alongside something sublime, a page written with force, purity, passion, judgment, reason, and elegance on the back of a page that is poor, trivial, dull, and wretched.32

But their contributions—many of them, anyway—were attributed, sourced, verifiable. Of the 140 or so contributors we know about, only 20 or so were paid. And in many ways the most fascinating thing is that in those instances when contributors were not identified, it was often so that their contributions actually could be more pointed; in those instances where the citation framework was not so clear, it was often so that previously banned books and other works could be quoted, and even excerpted, more freely.33 The whole damn thing was such a triumph!

The prospectus was not that radical a document. But it became something radical. It became the manifesto of the Encyclopédie, the Encyclopédie became the manifesto of the Enlightenment—and the Enlightenment became the manifesto of the call to action for freedom and justice and equality that still motivates us today.

The Monsterverse would come for it, of course—but that’s for later.

As William Tyndale had Aaron Swartz, Diderot, too, had his successor, a modern cognate: act of freedom to act of freedom. The prospectus that would follow Diderot’s in importance would actually follow in 1999.

That year, MIT’s free-software activist and hacker Richard M. Stallman called for a universal online encyclopedia, covering all areas of knowledge, and a complete library of instructional courses—and, equally important, as a parallel to what we have been reading and as an inspiration to us today, a movement (quite literally, he says a “movement”) to develop it, “much as the Free Software Movement gave us the free operating system GNU/Linux.”

The free encyclopedia will provide an alternative to the restricted ones that media corporations will write.

Stallman published a list of what that the encyclopedia would need to do, what sort of freedoms it would need to give to the public, and how it could get started. This was in 1999. It was to take advantage of the new century’s newest connective technology—so it would be online. It would be

An encyclopedia located everywhere.

An encyclopedia open to anyone—but, most
promisingly, to teachers and students.

An encyclopedia built of small steps.

An encyclopedia built on the long view: “If it takes twenty years to complete the free encyclopedia, that will be but an instant in the history of literature and civilization.”

An encyclopedia built with evangelists: “Let’s present . . . examples systematically to the academic community.”

An encyclopedia containing one or more articles for any topic you would expect to find in another encyclopedia—“for example, bird watchers might eventually contribute an article on each species of bird, along with pictures and recordings of its calls”—and “courses for all academic subjects.”


An encyclopedia with criteria of freeness.

An encyclopedia that permits universal access.

An encyclopedia that permits mirror sites and verbatim copies.

An encyclopedia that permits translation into other languages.

An encyclopedia that permits quotation with attribution.

An encyclopedia that permits modified versions of pictures and videos, for courses.

An encyclopedia built on only free software.

An encyclopedia without central control.

An encyclopedia that encourages peer review.

An encyclopedia with no catalogue—at least not yet.

An encyclopedia where pages inside link to other pages—but with no links to web pages that are restricted.

An encyclopedia that upholds the freedom of everyone, but especially teachers, to contribute.

An encyclopedia built by people who will spread the word.34

The licensing nonprofit Creative Commons would soon after declare Stallman to be its intellectual forebear. “In December 2002,” the organization’s website notes, Creative Commons “released its first set of copyright licenses for free to the public . . . inspired in part by [Stallman’s] Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public License.”

More to the point, Wikipedia to this day attributes its founding to Stallman, too, having based its “technological and conceptual underpinnings,” it says, on the “free-as-in-freedom online encyclopedia . . . proposed by Richard Stallman in December 2000.”35

Actually, 1999.

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