Greatest Story Ever Told, Greatest Trick Ever Pulled
July 7, 2018 4:36 AM   Subscribe

Authority - "We construct authority. How we construct it is among the most important social, ethical, and technological problems we face."
Modern, developed countries devote a significant fraction of their energies to the production of authority. Much of the work of the legal and accounting professions in the private sector, and of courts and the regulatory state in the public sector, is devoted to the production of authority. Finance, which concerns itself with contentious questions of who owns what and how scarce resources should be invested, is necessarily intertwined with the machinery of authority. The court system, the training and professional standards that apply to law and accountancy, the bureaucratic procedures that surround the operation of the regulatory state, all embody complicated sets of compromises between interests (which try to shape the social facts we coordinate upon for their own benefit) and the broader necessity of maintaining “credibility” and “legitimacy” so that recourse to hard power in shaping social behavior is rare. The production of “soft power” authority is the sine qua non of the modern state, and a source of competitive advantage for those who do it well.

The production of authority is a socio-technological problem, albeit a far-from-neutral technological problem (but technologies are never neutral)... Contemporary practices are also discriminatory. Most of the work of producing authority is done by a particular professional class, which is often socially and geographically segregated from the rest of the polity. Enfranchisement in the production of authority is skewed towards those within that class or capable of accessing (and paying) members of that class. This is problematic on technical grounds (those whose interests and perspectives are not included in the production of authority are more likely to privately dissent, diminishing the effectiveness of authority at coordinating behavior and increasing the degree to which hard power may be required), and on ethical grounds (the facts upon which we coordinate social behavior largely determine social outcomes, the determination of those facts is never neutral and always to a very large degree arbitrary).
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey - "What concerned Gibbon was the clash between faith and reason; for Nixey, the clashes are physical ones. This is, fundamentally, a study of religious violence... early Christians are much more likely to close down the academies, shut temples, loot and destroy artwork, forbid traditional practices and burn books. Rather than praising Christians for preserving slivers of classical wisdom, she argues, we should acknowledge how much was knowingly erased. Where did this appetite for destruction come from? Nixey's short answer is a simple one: demons. Many ancient Christians believed that the world we inhabit is a perilous place, crowded with malevolent supernatural beings, who sometimes manifest themselves in the form of fake gods. It is the Christian's duty to root these out."

Imperial history and classical aesthetics - "I've mostly been resisting reading Chinese imperial history, for two reasons. The smaller reason first: a lot of it is made up... The more important reason: China did not trigger its own industrial revolution. The first imperial dynasty was established 2,000 years ago, and the civilization has something like 5,000 years of recorded history. Did life change much for the average person throughout most of that time? Not really... But I've been able to define a few narrower questions I find interesting and important to pursue. They're driven by my thought that the study of imperial history is the study of innovations in social governance and political economy."

Sandwichman Sunday - "Generous social policy does not stand in opposition to productive work. On the contrary, if well arranged, it is the basis for productive work. To the manager of a firm, cheap labor is a source of productive advantage, but that's a perspective that fails to compose. Economies that offer cheap labor must import external demand. A good economy is composed of workers with time and money to consume, and of firms with strong incentives to innovate, to use dear labor ever more efficiently."

Three-day Workweeks and Four-day Weekends - "In the early days of the 1956 presidential campaign, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon envisioned the achievement of a four-day, 32-hour workweek in the 'not too distant future'. Sixty years later, the average workweek in the U.S. for full-time workers was 42.5 hours. Seventy percent of all employed persons worked 40 hours a week or more."

Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism - "It's not exactly that people want to work, it's more that people want to feel they are transforming the world around them in a way that makes some kind a positive difference to other people. In a way, that's what being human is all about. Take it away from them, they start to fall apart."

Why You're Being Kept In A Constant State Of Impotent Rage - "And when I talk about standard of living, remember I'm including the meaningful stuff, too -- acceptance and general awareness of alternative lifestyles, the ability to keep in touch with friends and family, availability of long-distance travel, exposure to art and culture, the ability to connect with fellow enthusiasts of niche hobbies."

A digital capitalism Marx might enjoy - "Having lost their leverage in the workplace, workers might instead use the ballot box to secure more of the capitalists' wealth, whether through tax reforms that give fewer breaks to owners and shareholders, and make it cheaper to invest in people, or in the more radical form of a basic income or government--provided make-work. But while such strategies might save people from poverty, it would not recognize workers' earned right to the economy's bounty—only the state's responsibility to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves."
Data itself could be considered a public resource. The companies that gather data might be required to provide open access to anonymized versions of it (perhaps after the expiration of a short “data patent,” which would reward the company that took the trouble to collect it with a brief period of exclusive use). In exchange for the right to access the data, firms could pay the government an annual royalty, which it might distribute across the population.

Or the government might begin taking ownership in firms itself. Giant sovereign wealth funds might buy shares on behalf of the data-generating public. Dividend payments would enrich the fund, which could in turn pay dividends to the public: the just reward for their contribution to production.

Of course, there is no reason governments can’t do this right now; indeed, some essentially do. Norway, for instance, operates a sovereign wealth fund worth more than $1 trillion, which owns substantial stakes in many Norwegian companies; its returns help fund an extraordinarily generous welfare state. But the case for such a radical approach grows as information accounts for more of the indispensable capital in the economy. A giant piece of mechanical equipment can be used by only one firm at a time, and for only so long before it deteriorates. We have private property rights and free-market competition so that such equipment can find its way to its best use. But the information in our data can be replicated and reused endlessly. The best way to make sure it finds its best use is to allow anyone to access it, under appropriate conditions and in return for fair compensation to society. With new capital comes a new capitalism—perhaps one, finally, that Marx could warm to.
Big Tech Is a Big Problem - "The problem for regulators is that standard anti-monopoly frameworks do not apply in a world where the costs to consumers (mainly in the form of data and privacy) are thoroughly non-transparent."
  • The Bill Gates Line - "A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it... platforms are powerful because they facilitate a relationship between 3rd-party suppliers and end users; aggregators, on the other hand, intermediate and control it."
  • The Moat Map - "The Internet leads not to platforms but to aggregators. While platforms need 3rd parties to make them useful and build their moat through the creation of ecosystems, aggregators attract end users by virtue of their inherent usefulness and, over time, leave suppliers no choice but to follow the aggregators' dictates if they wish to reach end users."
This is the first sensible reason for why Google killed Reader - "Google killed its Reader in 2013 because RSS as a format gives readers agency, doesn't track browsing to sell ads, and lets the user choose what they want to read. As opposed to algorithmic personalisation which siloes us into increasingly homogenous demographics for advertisers."

Tim (www) Berners-Lee Has a Plan - "The system aims to give users a platform by which they can control access to the data and content they generate on the Web."

The Market Police - "In the early twentieth century, there were many people who saw popular sovereignty as a problem to be solved. In a world where dynastic rule had been swept offstage, formal democracy might be unavoidable; and elections served an important role in channeling the demands that might otherwise be expressed through 'the right to the street'. But the idea that the people, acting through their political representatives, were the highest authority and entitled to rewrite law, property rights, and contracts in the public interest—this was unacceptable. One way or another, government by the people had to be reined in."

-Corporate cashflows, 1960-2016
-The Wit and Wisdom of Trygve Haavelmo
-"The financialization of the nonfinancial corporation"

World After Capital: Limits of Capitalism (Intro & Missing Prices) - "Capitalism cannot solve the scarcity of attention without significant changes in regulation and self-regulation. That's due to three important limitations. First, there are prices that will always be missing for things that we should be paying attention to. Second, capitalism to date has limited mechanisms for dealing with the power laws arising from digital technologies. Third, capitalism acts to preserve the interests of capital over those of knowledge. Put differently: we need to make changes now, precisely because capitalism has been so successful. The important problems that are left over are the one's it cannot solve."
The first foundational issue is zero marginal cost for copies and distribution in the digital realm. From a social perspective, we should make all the world’s knowledge, including all the existing music, videos, educational materials available for free at the margin. That’s not just true for content but also for services that can be provided at essentially zero marginal cost, such as medical diagnoses. As long as we are relying on the price mechanism, we will—by definition—under-produce free resources...

The second foundational issue is extreme uncertainty. Because prices aggregate information, they fail when no such information can exist. There are events that are so rare or have not occurred at all yet that we have essentially no information on their frequency or severity. This is especially true around the kind of societal event horizon that we are currently dealing with...

The third foundational issue is new knowledge itself. The further removed the knowledge is from creating a product or service that can be sold, the less the price mechanism is of use. That is quite obvious for basic research, but is even true in applied settings... Take the early days of quantum computing when any actual machine was still decades away. The price mechanism would not allocate attention to quantum computing at that time...

The fourth foundational issue is the deeply personal. For markets and prices to exist there have to be multiple buyers and sellers. So there is no market and hence no price for you to spend time with your children. Or for you to figure out your purpose in life.
-We Are Most Likely Alone in the Universe
-Population Growth, Energy Use, and the Implications for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

In China, universities seek to plant 'Xi Thought' in minds of students - "Mandatory ideology classes have been updated by the universities in response to instruction from the leadership that Xi's ideas must enter the textbooks, classrooms and minds of students... 'China has entered a new era and is beginning to provide public goods to the world, just as I said it would ten years ago.' "

Tariffs Are the Wrong Response to China - "American anger is justified: Chinese policies have systematically distorted the world economy at the expense of U.S. workers. But tariffs are the wrong response. They will penalize regular Americans while doing little to address China's harmful practices. Those practices have caused at least as much harm to ordinary Chinese as they have to the rest of the world."
China’s economic policies are a product of the Communist Party’s intolerance of alternative centers of power. After the pro-democracy movement met its violent end in 1989, Deng Xiaoping’s program of “reform and opening up” was modified so that party elites could capture as much of China’s new wealth for themselves as possible.

The result is that China is now one of the most unequal societies in the world. Between 1980 and 2010, the share of income officially earned by the top 1% of Chinese households rose by about nine percentage points.

This likely understates the gains of the elite because it does not count their control of the corporate sector, which benefits from the authoritarian government’s hostility to collective bargaining. In most countries, nonfinancial corporations pay their employees about two-thirds of the value of what they produce. In China, however, workers get only 40%...

China’s repressed consumption and state-sponsored capital outflows have their counterpart in massive trade surpluses. China exports almost $1 trillion more in manufactured goods than it imports, for example, a surplus worth more than 1% of the world’s GDP. China may be the workshop of the world, but the Chinese people cannot afford to buy what they produce. Instead, foreigners buy Chinese goods with money stolen from Chinese households by the Chinese government. Foreign workers are also victims of this arrangement, because their cheap goods come at the price of lost jobs and rising debt.

The trade conflict between the U.S. and China is therefore a consequence of China’s internal class conflict. Tariffs will not fix anything as long as China’s elites remain committed to extracting as much as they can from Chinese workers. The better approach would be to hit those elites where it hurts: Western governments should coordinate to ban Chinese investment in their countries, starting with housing. The U.S. and its allies should also become the champions of Chinese workers, especially rural migrants deprived of basic government benefits.
The China-U.S. Power Struggle Is Just Beginning - "Chinese President Xi Jinping has an ambitious master plan for his country's transformation into a wealthy, technology-driven global economic power... Whereas the U.S. has long sought to spread democracy and free markets to other nations, China's ruling Communist Party is just starting to pitch its heavy-handed growth model as an alternative for developing nations. And Xi is backing it up with hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for infrastructure projects from Asia to Europe and beyond."

Putin Family Values - "Was the hope that post-Soviet Russia would 'join the West' always a delusion? A quarter-century later, with the Kremlin and Western populists identifying a common enemy in the global order headed by the United States and abetted by the European Union, convergence might finally be occurring, though in the opposite direction... The tactical alliance between the Kremlin and the populists pumps up the dream of an ideological union, stretching 'from Lisbon to Vladivostok', based not on Western but on 'Eurasian' values."
  • Putin thinks Trump is America's Gorbachev.
  • 1930: Republicans Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley sponsor a sweeping tariff bill, sparking a trade war and sending U.S. exports plunging.

    1944: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected to his 4th term as president after transforming the American economic system.

    ...Just sayin'.
What the Eyes Don't See - "So we reiterate that no matter where you are, you come from folks who believed in a borderless cause, who believed in a just society. And that just like they did and just like your mom and dad do, we expect that you also, you know, use your education, use your skills and use your voice to make wherever your community may be a better place."
posted by kliuless (19 comments total) 117 users marked this as a favorite
whoa. that's quite a set of links covering......everything?

GRRM agrees with the interpretation of authority.... what is power?. (90 second SLYT)
posted by lalochezia at 5:15 AM on July 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

-We Are Most Likely Alone in the Universe

That does not really follow from a paper that seems, at best, to establish that there is much more uncertainty in assumptions about frequency of intelligent life than Fermi thought.
posted by thelonius at 6:23 AM on July 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Outstanding post on a topic that is absolutely critical to so much of our life in so many respects. I look forward to digging in. Thanks!!
posted by emmet at 6:49 AM on July 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Added Interfluidity to my Feedly!
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:54 AM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Kudos on lengnth and breadth of this post. Looking forward ro diving in layer on this weekend.
posted by Faintdreams at 7:40 AM on July 7, 2018

What happens after a body’s been saving up some links.
posted by notyou at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I really enjoyed the top link (and the linked post inside about the benefits of flawed authority). I don't know if I have the cognitive energy to dive further right now.

This crystallized a lot of questions I've been asking related to news, fake news, science, beliefs, etc. I fully respect people who are skeptical of people who want to question the authority of 'news providers.' I think there needs to be thought given to how we determine truth on an individual level. I don't like the idea of Facebook or googles mediating this, but at the speed information moves today, what better alternatives are there? Can alternatives be developed faster than the solutions they're offering?
posted by lownote at 9:37 AM on July 7, 2018

Great post. It will be a while before I can wrap my head around all of this but it's a great set of links.

I get what the first post is saying about authority being largely a social construct, but it's a worrisome attitude to me. Your bank doesn't set your bank balance arbitrarily, it's backed up by math that can be verified by you or by any third party. Social constructs are what determine how much you get paid, how much certain things costs, what you feel is essential to spend your money on, etc. So the argument needs to go a lot deeper than it does.

Garry Kasparov has been on a few of the podcasts I listen to and one of the things he says about Putin's method of rule (and thus, the reality that we are all beginning to live in) is that there is a great effort devoted to destroying the notion of truth. You can report the facts all you want, but there will be a concerted effort to present so many alternative "facts" that getting to the actual truth become, eventually, not worth the effort. Maybe that passenger plane was shot down by a Ukranian missile, maybe it was a terrorist, maybe it was a secret government operation, and on and on.

If you deconstruct the authoritative truth too much, you lose your notion of objective truth, which means that you can no longer make effective, real word, fact based decisions.

Facebook and Google will certainly have a role to play in shaping our collective notions of authoritative truth, like it or not. I have a lot more thinking to do about this.
posted by natteringnabob at 6:31 PM on July 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

The first article reminds me a lot of a concept in information literacy called Authority is Constructed and Contextual. The major ideas, in part, are these two things:
1) "Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought."
2) "Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations."

I have always liked this particular frame and think that it's very healthy to frame authority as contextual in this area (it would not be so healthy if I was suggesting how a POC should deal with cops--this is strictly authority in the information sense). It sends some of my colleagues in the profession around the bend--blah blah blah relativism--but I have a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak so I appreciate it.
posted by librarylis at 9:30 PM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

OK story time. This post has helped me understand why I hate bureaucracy - it is a particularly venal and fussy subset of authority, and in the right situation it completely fucks up your life, which seems to be its purpose and goal...

So, a few days ago we were scrambling to get my wife's documents in order. I am switching to a new work visa, and she is becoming my dependent along with the kids. Her old visa is running out.

Ooh, looky here! Now almost all documents need to be "legalized". So a real actual marriage license is not enough, it needs a special stamp from the issuing government, then confirmed by the Chinese embassy, that it really is a legal document. Government certificate not good enough, but stamped by that same government it satisfies the bureaucrats.

Hey, no problem! Before we came we had the certificate stamped, in Malaysia. By the Kazakh Embassy. Well you see, there is no Tajik embassy there, and the Central Asian 'stans have a kind of buddy deal to help with each others' stamps and suchlike.

Not good enough? But it was good enough the first time, 2 years ago. OK, well, let's get it stamped at the Tajik Embassy in Beijing. Hurry up, the clock is ticking!

What? Hurry up? Who are you, fuck you, we take our time at the Tajik Embassy unless you are a bigshot. No, there is no way we can stamp this in time.

Oh. Um, Ok, so I guess the whole family has to evacuate, like refugees, at huge cost, back to Dushanbe. OK, no biggie, get the stamp there it is all good...

Oh, hello there! Haven't you heard? Foreigners marrying Tajiks must buy property in the Republic of Tajikistan for their marriage to be officially recognised. No stamp for you without a property deed!

Oh, hey, cool, so like we are fucked for lack of a stamp from this insane government?

But hey, we also had an Islamic marriage in Nova Scotia, maybe that will work.

No problem! But first you need an official certificate form the Province of Nova Scotia recognizing that marriage. Apply online and we will send you the application form, and then we will issue the certificate that you can send to the agent who will get it notarized and then stamped by the provincial government and then approved at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa...

I am about USD5K in the hole over this bullshit, today, and alone in China waiting on my first paycheque. Kafka got nothing on me, this is real life. This only happens to little people.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:13 AM on July 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

"Whereas the U.S. has long sought to spread democracy and free markets to other nations"

I used to believe that too, because few western public education systems include the activities of the CIA in destabilizing other sovereign nations so we could continue to consume a disproportionate amount of energy to maintain an unsustainable standard of living. But as societal evolution speeds up, I'm hoping there's a seed of a solution to the human desire for a sense of security that isn't necessarily tied to just having more stuff...
posted by Redhush at 9:00 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your bank doesn't set your bank balance arbitrarily, it's backed up by math that can be verified by you or by any third party. Social constructs are what determine how much you get paid, how much certain things costs, what you feel is essential to spend your money on, etc.

"This is unfair to the F-35. It is very effective in its original mission, which is buying McMansions in Alexandria for generals and military contractors."

Putin's method of rule (and thus, the reality that we are all beginning to live in) is that there is a great effort devoted to destroying the notion of truth.

Informational Autocrats - "In recent decades, dictatorships based on mass repression have largely given way to a new model based on the manipulation of information."

also btw...
  • Sustained growth and the increase in work hours - "the logic of the industrious revolution I presented above can be used in reverse to think about changes in economic growth in the recent past. You could argue that recent innovations have made time-intense consumption items (e.g. Netflix or video games) cheaper. And in a mirror image response to the 1600's, people are substituting more time-intense consumption for goods-intense consumption. This means that they willingly withdraw labor from the market in order to enjoy those time-intense activities"
  • Jaron Lanier on fighting Big Tech's 'manipulation engine' - "Lanier argues that these platform companies are using their colossal computing power to gain a vast informational advantage, keeping the economic rewards for themselves while radiating risk out to everyone else."
  • He supports the idea that the world is broadly healthier, better educated and happier. But he argues this has only come about because of the activism of the discontented. His stark criticisms serve a higher purpose. “At every increment of improvement in human history somebody got pissed off and said, ‘This can be better, this must be better’. To be an optimist has to mean being a critic. The enemy of the future is not the pessimist but the complacent person.”
posted by kliuless at 6:09 AM on July 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

So... what's the central theme of these links? Are all of them somehow related to the bit about authority from the portion of the post that appears above the fold, as is usually the case with posts? Some of them look interesting, but they seem largely random, aside from maybe a vaguely historical progression below the fold? Is there some value to reading them in order, or can I pick and choose and skip around? In short, although these links might be "the best of the web", the post framing and structure could use improvement. Not so much that it's worth flagging or asking you to re-do the post - but could you add some sort of readers' guide in the comments here? Thank you. (Signed, someone who takes the teaching component of my job seriously and so who probably thinks about issues of interpretive labor(*) more than your average person.)

(* See also: this, that was linked from the article on research debt from Google Brain folks linked above; or this Graeber article linked in the second piece, that ties back in well with the first fpp link on authority and bureaucracy, as well as Meatbomb's comment.)
posted by eviemath at 6:16 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

for me it's about how authority is constructed (socially), its different forms (political economy, financial, technological, cultural), how they crumble or clash -- in history (empires, early christianity, ancien regimes), as they appear to be presently (capitalism/tribalism/socialism) and in the future (US/china) -- and, maybe, how authority might be better resolved than how it is now. sorry if that seems random! and of course you're free to form your own interpretation (or not) since this is a subjective/subjunctive exercise and a (possibly) arbitrary set of links; i'm far from an authority :P

some of the arbitrariness might stem from my 'meta' interpretation of authority. like i think weaved through 'authority' is our own 'narrative consciousness' -- the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world (or group) -- which takes, as you say, interpretive labor, attention bandwidth and carries a cognitive load. what is our purpose in life? what's the end state you envision? how we define it confers authority as well. but also, in addition to controlling the narrative (say, the overton window, e.g. 'because national security/precious bodily fluids'), cognitive overload (gas lighting, 'who can even tell what is real anymore?', i.e. learned helplessness, or just workload) itself looks like an increasing tool of authority/authoritarians.

i guess that isn't a super novel observation? but i find it all interesting :) for example, consider these job guarantee interpretations:
  1. Universal Basic Bullshit Jobs
  2. A Federal Job Guarantee for Everyone? Be Skeptical
  3. The Jobs Guarantee, "Make-Work," and FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
the first makes the case that david graeber is a pompous insufferable windbag and hypocritical because his job-guaranteed tenured professorship is a 'bullshit job'. the second suggests there might be some practical difficulties implementing a JG and the third says, but look at what the CCC accomplished. with all their competing claims -- and subtext -- they could all still be true! but which one -- if any -- should you trust as authoritative? and isn't all this speculation anyway? well, it depends... partly on what everyone else thinks.

anyway, i'd just read the FPP (if the concept of 'authority' interests you ;) and if you find any of the rest related -- vaguely grouped together (history; capitalist critiques; technology and finance; chinese 'characteristics' and transnational white populism) -- or interesting, read on, but there is no particular order!
posted by kliuless at 6:21 AM on July 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

No, that's a totally cool and valid theme. It just didn't come across at all in the original post, since you didn't have any of your own text connecting the links or introducing the post, and many of the pull quotes didn't mention authority. Saying things explicitly generally assists in conveying meaning.
posted by eviemath at 4:40 PM on July 11, 2018

I think your theme description conflates distinct types or definitions of authority a bit, though. The clearest attempt to define these sorts of things that I, personally, have read so far (not having followed all the last nks above yet, perhaps) is the chapter in Arendt's "On Violence" where she grapples with definitions of "power" and "authority". The sort of authority we mean when we talk about trusting experts and expertise to know better than non-experts on a topic is related but distinct from the sort of bureaucratic authority of people or institutions whose commands other people follow, ceding their own right or responsibility to make judgements about the ethicality of their actions, for example. Both forms of "authority" are socially constructed of course, but in different ways / through different social processes.

When talking about social construction of authority (or power), I find that links to the notion (from biology, math, or computer science) of emergent phenomena are also useful. All of human society is an emergent phenomenon, basically. But a very complicated one, and humans aren't very good at reasoning about complicated causality, so starting with simpler examples like Conway's Game of Life or animal flocking behavior can be helpful. Slime mold movement and other emergent phenomena in plant or other non-animal organisms is kind of the next step up in conceptual complexity, I think. Then other non-human animal social behavior; then human social behavior.
posted by eviemath at 4:55 PM on July 11, 2018

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