Futures Studies

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"Futures Studies" is the most common name for the interdisciplinary study of potential future developments and conditions. It has displaced earlier terms like Futurology and Futuristics which reflected the goal of creating a new discipline with mathematical tools capable of accurate Prediction. Frequent failures of prediction have tempered that ambition and complexity theory has highlighted the inability of any forecasting methods to capture the inherent uncertainties of open, nonlinear systems where small perturbations can sometimes cause large and unpredictable effects. While "pop futurists" may still make confident predictions (see Pseudoscience), responsible practitioners recognize that there are severe limitations on our ability to predict "the future" of anything of consequence, and focus instead on exploring "alternative futures". This includes studying trends, scanning for emerging developments, exploring the underlying causes of change and stability, forecasting alternative future conditions that could emerge from the dynamics of change, and helping individuals and organizations envision their preferred futures and actions to move toward them. The plural term "futures" in futures studies is an explicit recognition that there are many possible futures ahead shaped by a multitude of factors, including our own aspirations and efforts. "Futures" as a stand-alone term is also sometimes used as a generic name for the field, and the term "Foresight", first popularized by H G Wells, continues to be used, especially for look-ahead efforts by governments.

History shows that human beings are ab origine future-directed animals. Ever since Homo erectus began the long trek out of Africa and into Eurasia, the horizon-watchers have known that their survival might well depend on what they found over the hill, in the no-man's time of the day after. From very early times, societies have attempted to develop methods for improving foresight, using approaches as varied as visiting oracles, studying the heavens (astrology), casting lots (cleromancy), and examining animal livers (hepatoscopy). But a serious literature about the future appears as a mere blip at the end of civilization's 10,000-year record.

Neither fiction nor nonfiction writing about the future became common until technological change accelerated to a point where people could see significant changes occurring within their own lifetimes. When that point was reached in the eighteenth century, during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the idea of "progress" also emerged as a driving force in Western thought. In his influential Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750) Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), then a student at the Sorbonne, marshalled historical evidence for several lines of human progress, most of which were related directly or indirectly to developments in science and technology. Since, he argued, mankind had advanced from primitive beginnings to the glorious days of Louis X, it followed that the human race would "go on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection". Other thought leaders of that era such as Adam Smith (1723-1790) helped clarify the mechanisms of progress. Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) attempted to demonstrate how economic progress was an automatic and natural result of interactions in a free market. For the importance of this period in the evolution of Proto SF, and in the shaping of Fantastika as a whole, see these entries, and also History of SF and Ruins and Futurity.

It was not long, however, until the automatic character of progress was challenged. In 1798 Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) published his notorious Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society in which he pessimistically linked the future of humanity to the potentially geometrical growth of population and the merely arithmetical growth of the rations that sustained it, a situation that could be balanced only if vast numbers died. A tremendous debate about humankind's future followed, partly because this early warning of "limits to growth" coincided with the publication by Edward Jenner (1749-1823) of his paper on the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, which held out the marvellous promise that diseases like smallpox could be eliminated, but also implied that "death control" could dramatically increase the rate of population growth. By that time James Watt's steam engine was providing power on an unprecedented scale, and the Industrial Revolution was on the point of transforming the world.

With change accelerating and sharply contrasting images of the future competing for cultural influence, it is hardly surprising that tales of the future began to emerge and spread their message of the centuries ahead. The most important was Louis-Sébastien Mercier's L'an 2440 (1771; trans as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred 1772), which described a better future world in which the social ideals of the Enlightenment had prevailed: constitutional monarchs, deism the universal religion, education for all. The most telling register of expected change was in the technology of the future: a Suez Canal, rapid Balloon transportation between continents, and "all sorts of machines for the relief of Man in laborious works". Though texts pointing to the future in order to convey philosophical points soon became moderately common, it was only in 1834 that Félix Bodin – in Le roman de l'avenir (1834; trans Brian Stableford as The Novel of the Future 2008) – envisioned an "epic of the future" conveyed through novelistic means.

By the 1880s, industrial societies were in the midst of what American historian Alfred Chandler called the "Second Industrial Revolution", triggered by the convergence of technological development and scientific research. The iron, coal, steam and textile production technologies of the initial Industrial Revolution had not really drawn on science but were rather the culmination of a long history of pre-scientific technical development. But the new technologies emerging in the late 1800s – the internal combustion engine, steel and aluminium alloys, Rayon and other products of an emerging chemical industry, Communications technologies such as the telegraph and radio, and all the technologies involved in electrification – could not have been invented without a sufficient basis of scientific knowledge. This coming together of what the economist Kenneth E Boulding (1910-1993) called the "Know-What" of science with the "Know-How" of technical invention produced a dramatic acceleration of technological change that was obvious to all and produced a widespread interest in what the future would bring.

A growing flood of forecasting literature began around 1890, focusing first on the next great Future War – a discussion catalysed, certainly for sf writers, by the War of 1870 (see Battle of Dorking). Its first major prediction was the work of Polish banker and statistician Ivan Gottlieb de Bloch (1836-1902), who produced the classic analysis in The War of the Future in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations (1897). His findings, ignored by the military establishment, led him to forecast a great war of entrenchment (see World War One). Soon forecasts became part of popular writing: weekly magazines occasionally featured articles with illustrations of flying machines, motor cars and Television. Some two dozen books about the future were published at this time, including the influential Esquisse de l'organisation politique et économique de la societé future (1899; trans P H Lee Warner as The Society of To-Morrow 1904) by Gustave de Molinari (1819-1911) and an anthology by Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) presenting the expectations of ten eminent socialists in Forecasts of the Coming Century (coll 1897). The organizers of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 coaxed a hundred prominent people into sharing their visions of the future in the year 1993. The forecasts that emerged included daring nuggets such as "Each well-to-do man will have a telephone in his residence."

The most widely read of all the serious writing about the future appearing at this time was the series of articles by H G Wells in the April-December 1900 issues of Fortnightly Review, published in book form as Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (coll of linked essays 1901). Well's method of thinking prefigured some of the methodologies that would be developed several generations later. In one example, he made simple assumptions about how long people would be willing to spend commuting to and from work, combined that with the distance one could travel with various modes of transport (both existing and imagined) and anticipated with uncanny precision the expansion of cities over a hundred year period. Thinking about the centrifugal growth of cities led Wells to conjure up images of suburbs, traffic jams, and even the expansion of the service economy. Anticipations changed Wells' reputation from that of a rising young novelist to a major intellectual figure. He was invited to deliver a lecture at the Royal Institution where he called for the creation of a new field, a "systematic study of the future", later published as The Discovery of the Future (1902 chap). Both modern science fiction and futures studies have Wells as a major founding figure.

The next major advances in the study of the future occurred in the period between the two world wars. In the 1920s the publishing house Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner brought out a series of eighty-six monographs in their To-day and To-morrow series, in which scientists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians and others set down their expectations of the future. Among these texts were J D Bernal's The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929 chap), whose modelling of potential futures deeply influenced writers like Olaf Stapledon, and J B S Haldane's Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1923 chap), which accurately forecast advances in Biology and Genetic Engineering that gave Aldous Huxley important ideas for Brave New World (1932). The series was widely reported and did much to publicize thinking about the future. More important, however, was the first major government initiative in this area. In 1930 the US President, Herbert Hoover, appointed a National Resources Committee "to examine and report upon recent social trends in the United States with a view to providing such a review as might supply a basis for the formulation of large national policies looking to the next phase in the nation's development". The committee, drawing on the resources of field-survey techniques formulated at the University of Chicago, presented their conclusions in their report Recent Social Trends (1932), which provided a model for the US and an example to the rest of the world.

In 1939, the New York World's Fair, officially called the World of Tomorrow, arguably had more impact on the public imagination than any book about the future published near that time. Its most popular exhibit, by far, was Futurama, General Motors' vision of the American landscape in the year 1960. Created for GM by the brilliant New York theatre designer Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), Futurama swept fairgoers into a future America where sleek automobiles moved gracefully through clean, tree-lined suburbs and along superhighways connecting cities all across the country. Visitors entering the exhibit sat in six-foot, high-backed chairs looking down at an expansive and exquisitely detailed diorama that stretched for seven city blocks. It was the largest scale model ever built, featuring over one million trees, 500,000 buildings, and 50,000 autos with over 10,000 in motion. A conveyor belt moved people through the diorama in fifteen minutes. As visitors gazed down on the countryside and cityscapes of the future, a complex audio system weighing twenty tons delivered 150 pre-recorded messages to each viewer, each at exactly the right spot in their journey. At the end, the chairs emerged into a full-scale verdant suburban New York streetscape of 1960. Upon leaving, visitors were given a button that stated simply: "I have seen the future." Within a one-year time period, almost 5 percent of the US population experienced Futurama. Before the World Fair, hardly anyone had imagined a world of suburbs and transcontinental highways. After the Fair, that was the future many Americans expected. Interestingly, the transformation of America by a Transportation system built on oil and the explosion of suburbias along lines of vehicular transit was not anticipated by nonfiction writers of the time, nor by writers of advocacy Genre SF like Robert A Heinlein.

World War Two brought both massive destruction and another surge of technological change: jet aircraft and radar, Rockets, Television, the first electronic Computers, the beginnings of industrial Automation, the atom bomb and Nuclear Energy, and the invention of "Research and Development" (R&D) as an organized, ongoing function. At the end of the war a watershed occurred as the study of the future became a serious area of inquiry and activism, funded by governments, corporations and foundations, centred in "think tanks", universities and NGOs.

Differing approaches arose in different countries, in large part according to how they were affected by World War Two. The nations of Western Europe were rebuilding both physically and psychologically from the war's devastation., wrestling with what long-term social and political goals needed to be pursued to successfully rebuild their economies and insure a stable peace. In this context, many Europeans involved in foresight efforts were primarily concerned with envisioning a long-term positive future for their nation, Europe and the world. In the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries where reconstruction was heavily shaped by national economic planning, thinking about the future was closely tied to formulating the goals and methods of national planning. Developing countries of Africa and Asia, just emerging from colonialism, were approaching the future from the perspective of their need to construct new national identities and the basic infrastructures required for independent economic development. The situation in the United States was strikingly different. The US was physically undamaged and the historical optimism of US culture was strengthened by victory in the war, the technical advances accelerated by the war effort, and the way the war stimulated economic growth, ending the lingering Depression of the 1930s. During the war it became apparent that the technological systems being built by the military were of such increasing complexity that whole new approaches to planning and thinking about future contingencies were needed. This set of needs helped stimulate the development of new quantitative methods and new disciplines such as operations research and systems analysis. It was from this cauldron of new intellectual methods and renewed optimism that futures studies developed in the US.

University scholars played a crucial role in winning World War II by inventing technologies like radar, proximity fuses, and the atom bomb, and by staffing intelligence and code-breaking agencies. When the war ended, this unique intellectual resource began to dissipate. In response, the American General Henry Arnold established a research centre to investigate possible developments in warfare. It had the codename RAND (Research and Development), and in 1948 the project team set up an independent non-profit organization known as the RAND Corporation. It was the first "think tank", and it had an immense influence on military planning and on presidential decisions about nuclear weapons. Several new methodologies for studying the future were invented at RAND during the 1950s and 1960s. Many of RAND's early staff members, believing that these methods could be more broadly applied for the good of society as a whole, left to form other organizations – the Hudson Institute, the Institute for the Future, the Futures Group, and others.

These organizations used a wide range of methodologies. The simplest is often called "genius forecasting", which is not really a repeatable methodology but rather a combination of breadth of knowledge, keen observation of emerging developments, vivid imagination about how these developments could unfold, and logical analysis of potential consequences. It involves the kind of thinking that H G Wells did in Anticipations, the kind that Peter Drucker (1909-2005) did in anticipating many developments in business management and society. Drucker said "I just look out the window and see what is visible but not yet seen" ... and think about it. Genius forecasting can be valuable when it involves true genius; otherwise it is just one person's opinion. Various other methods, such as cross-impact matrices and futures wheels, have been developed to help people do a similar kind of systematic thinking about how developments in one area may effect change in other areas and how specific inventions, trends and developments can have non-obvious secondary, tertiary (or further) consequences.

Quantitative methodologies for studying the future are more widely used in the US than anywhere else. "Trend analysis" is the most common method. Data is gathered on trends in technology, demographics, the economy or other areas and then extrapolated into the future. Trend analysis can lead to powerful insights, providing a sense, for example, of the size of the population that will need to be provided for in the future or the level of computer processing power that will be available. However, the seeming precision of numbers can pose dangers, creating a false sense of certainty that causes people to overlook developments that may slow, stop or reverse the trends. The simplest quantitative methods involve new approaches for gathering expert opinion. In the Delphi method developed at RAND, experts are asked to give quantitative answers to questions and their reasons for them, the results are fed back to members of the expert group, and then they are asked for their reconsidered answers, with all this done anonymously so that status and force of personality cannot influence participant's judgements. (A simplified version of Delphi, using non-experts, features in John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider [1975 US].) The most complex quantitative methods involve "computer modelling" to simulate the dynamics of change in various areas.

While trend analysis tracks continuities, techniques of "environmental scanning" look for newly emerging ideas and perspectives, technical Inventions in their early stage of development, organizational innovations, experiments with new lifestyles, and other developments that could influence how the future unfolds and become the source of new trends. Because emerging developments always challenge generally held perceptions of "the way things are" and sometimes also challenge current ways of doing things, information about them is usually harder to get through to decision makers than information about expectable trends.

Another methodology, "scenario planning", has been widely used in both the military and large corporations. Scenarios are not predictions but rather alternative plausible stories about how a number of variables might interact to produce different future states. They can be based on extensive research, but the most effective scenarios take the form of easily understood narratives. Working with scenarios helps people develop contingency plans, identify robust actions likely to work well across a variety of future circumstances, and clarify their own sense of the "preferred future." Most scenarios used in business and government are narrow in scope. Many posit a "most likely" future and minor variations from it. A widely used method creates four scenarios by specifying two different states for two important but uncertain variables, forming a 2x2 scenario matrix to elaborate and explore. More challenging scenarios set out broader "alternative futures" that reflect major images of the future existing in organizations and the larger society.

One other area of methodology, "visioning" and "normative forecasting", involves the creation of inspiring images of best-plausible "preferred futures" combined with "backcasting" the kinds of developments and efforts needed to bring these futures into existence. The seminal De toekomst is verleden tijd ["The Future Is Past Time"] (1955 2vols; trans Elise Boulding as The Image of the Future 1961 2vols; trans cut 1973) by Dutch sociologist and historian Fred Polak (1907-1985) is the intellectual foundation for this approach to futures thinking. The Image of the Future is a work of massive scholarship, a macrohistory of Western Civilization in which Polak attempts to demonstrate that all the great periods of social transformation in the past, from classical Greece to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and on to the rise of parliamentary democracies were preceded and accompanied by the development of positive images of future possibilities that acted to guide and motivate change. Polak argued that positive images of the future, like Thomas More's Utopia (Part Two 1516 in Latin; trans Ralphe Robynson with the later Part One 1551) and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap) acted to draw reality toward the imagined Other. Because all our decisions are about the future, our images of what is possible and desirable have a profound influence on our choice-oriented behavior and therefore on the way the future turns out. "The rise and fall of images of the future," he wrote, "precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures." From this perspective, the almost complete absence of compelling positive images of the Near Future in contemporary sf is a telling social indicator.

During recent decades, futurists and other nonfiction writers engaged in long-term thinking have elaborated several major images of the future expressing both Optimism and Pessimism about "what could be". The broad categories of images described below draw on the work of Jim Dator, founder of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii, and Clement Bezold and his colleagues at the Institute for Alternative Futures, who use "scenario archetypes" in their teaching and consulting. Scenario archetypes are attempts to capture the key images of the future that are actually present in our collective imagination. As such, they are taken from the same well of thought upon which sf draws.

The culturally dominant image, underlying nearly all contemporary business, government, media and education, is an image of Continued Growth. Both liberals and conservatives, market-oriented democracies and communist nations have aspired to this future, with its ever-rising material production, affluence and technological progress. The image has evolved over time, with a recognition that employment will increasingly shift from industrial production to services (the "post-industrial" society), that knowledge and communication are increasingly the basis of wealth creation (the "information society") and that the elimination of jobs by automation will pose a growing challenge. But the constant across the many variations of this image is continuous economic growth. Many futurists embrace this outlook, but Herman Kahn was arguably its preeminent exponent. Kahn was a member of the original group at RAND where he developed the methodology of scenario planning for the military. His consulting, and books like On Thermonuclear War (1960) and Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962) shaped US nuclear strategy. Kahn left RAND to form his own think tank, the Hudson Institute, which was largely dedicated to promoting his vision of rapid economic growth continuing through the twentieth, twenty-first and twenty-second centuries. Kahn's greatest fear was that environmentalists and other "prophets of doom" could become too influential, causing a loss of nerve that would prevent humanity from achieving the Superindustrial Society of worldwide high-level affluence he saw ahead. He took great delight in dispatching critics, especially environmentalists, with a withering wit, an avalanche of facts and figures and an ability to talk faster than most people can think.

In the 1970s, a flurry of opposing views – images of Collapse – came to the fore. Different versions emphasized different potential causes such as the population explosion (see Overpopulation) resource depletion, food shortages, eco-catastrophes, massive natural Disasters and new human-made plagues (see Climate Change; Ecology). The book that best synthesized and expressed many of these concerns was called The Limits to Growth (1972), a report commissioned by the Club of Rome, produced by a team of researchers at MIT and written primarily by Donella Meadows (1941-2001). The report was the first major effort to use computer modelling to forecast the global future. Its conclusion stated: "If present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity." One year later, the OPEC oil embargo seemed to confirm the idea that there are limits ahead. The book's message was translated into 30 languages and sold 30 million copies, making it the most widely read forecasting publication ever produced. Images of collapse became less common in the 1980s and 1990s, but they have become prominent again in the early twenty-first century. As before, different people emphasize different potential causes such as global Economic instability, Peak Oil (the peaking and decline of global oil production), runaway Climate Change or a combination of such factors. Many other images of futures that are problem-plagued but fall short of collapse might be called Decline and Stagnation futures.

Another group of images portray different versions of a Disciplined Society. In many of these images, state control grows for ostensibly valid reasons: to counter terrorism and other threats to national security, to maintain social order in worsening economic and social conditions, to enforce conservation in response to energy and resource shortages, or to prevent environmental degradation from threatening the ecological stability. Other images portray still darker possibilities like the rise of authoritarianism in response to social breakdown, a drift toward a fundamentalist theocracy (see Religion), or a "scientific state" imposing Eugenics practices on the population. Perhaps the best-developed image of a disciplined society, frightening in its plausibility, is the scenario developed by Bertram Gross (1912-1997) in his book Friendly Fascism (1980). Gross was an insider, working as a staff member on several Senate committees, serving as executive secretary of the President's Council of Economic Advisors and later teaching at the Harvard Business School. He joined the faculty of Syracuse University during a time when one of the new centres for futures studies was being established there. Gross saw the US and other affluent democracies moving toward a future where big business and big government are increasingly intertwined. There is no single charismatic leader, one-party dictatorship, rigid censorship or other trappings of classical fascism. There is no master plan or coordinated conspiracy. The super-rich and corporate elites who are moving society in this direction do not see themselves as such, and citizens are generally unaware of the changes taking place. But Gross argued that in constantly seeking to increase their wealth and expand and protect their power and privileges, these elites are gaining more and more influence, shaping government policies toward their benefit, influencing public opinion through Advertising and media consolidation, and ultimately subverting constitutional democracy.

A final set of images explores Transformational Futures. Their common denominator is that they are all positive images (at least in the eyes of those proposing them) and they all involve profound changes in society's underlying values and assumptions, institutional arrangements, and technologies. The Third Wave (1980) by Alvin Toffler provides even by its title alone the transformational image that has achieved the widest audience and still tends to define the futures field in the popular mind. The book's central idea is that society is being transformed by advancing information technology (see Computers; Information Theory) and the transition to a new economy that runs primarily on the production and exchange of knowledge. In this process, the entire "code" or set of principles that run through all the activities of Industrial Society – standardization, specialization, synchronization, maximization, centralization and concentration of energy, money and power – will be increasing displaced by activities based on principles that are virtually the opposite, such as customization, flexibility, demassification, optimization and decentralization.

There are a great variety of other transformational images. Many portray a successful "Sustainable Society" where humanity has learned to live in harmony with the Earth's Ecology. These range from images of greater localism and lifestyles of voluntary simplicity to images of a future that is still wealthy but less materialistic, more focused on other aspects of personal achievement and cultural progress, running on clean sources of energy (see Power Sources), recycling resources, and using ultra-efficient zero-pollution technologies. Some images portray a "High Spirit" future in which consciousness research, the "new physics", and the best aspects of Eastern and Western spirituality come together in a way that fosters major advances in personal development and social cooperation. Other "High Frontier" images explore possible cultural impacts of contact with extraterrestrials (see Aliens; First Contact) and prospects for humanity's movement into space. Still others depict an "Ultra High Tech" future where info-bio-nano-cogno technologies revolutionize everything (see Nanotechnology). The most extreme of these high tech images portray technological change reaching a Singularity where AI surpasses human intelligence and races beyond what limited human minds can understand, making the future extremely difficult to foresee. Images of this future feature Posthumans, Cyborgs and intelligent Robots, with human minds connected to or uploaded into Computers, and extreme longevity or even Immortality. Ray Kurzweil's influential book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) offers the best case yet made for the plausibility of such a technological singularity.

Futures studies and science fiction clearly have an extensive overlap. A few authors, like H G Wells and Arthur C Clarke, had had a foot firmly in both realms. Sf itself has produced futurists as characters, the best known being Hari Seldon and fellow exponents of the Imaginary Science of Psychohistory in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Futurists have given ideas to science fiction writers, and vice versa. Sf writers like John Brunner have helped communicate dangers like Overpopulation and threats to the planet's Ecology. A more recent writer, Cory Doctorow, combines fiction and nonfiction in a series of projections whose clarity (and certainty) reflect a similar forthrightness on the part of slightly earlier Hard SF writers like Gregory Benford and David Brin. Like futures studies, sf can give direction to change through a process of self-fulfilling prophecy, by presenting images of the future which grip people's minds. Would the US and Soviet space programs have been funded as well, for example, without the popular support that stories of Space Flight helped to build?

Serious futurists may often (but not always) learn more about the subjects they are dealing with than writers of fiction, but sf writers actually have an important advantage. Futurists working in universities have to meet academic standards, and futurists working for business or government clients are often constrained by what their clients are interested in or will view as responsible work. The advantage sf writers have is their very irresponsibility: they cannot be held accountable for the nature of their scenarios; the details do not have to be justified. This potentially allows sf writers to survey a greater range of possibility. Sf writers can give freer range to the imagination and take the unexpected into account, and history tells us that the unexpected does indeed often happen.

Perhaps the greatest failure of contemporary sf, from the futurist's point of view, is its failure to explore more positive images of the future. This is explainable in part by dramatic necessity: it may be argued that sf, like all fiction, is inherently more capable of telling the story of hell than of depicting interesting heavens – that sf is better at Dystopia than Utopia. All the same, the Golden Age of SF was filled with positive images, even if they were often shallow and technocratic. It would be a welcome development if more sf writers could go against today's gloomy Zeitgeist and explore the adventures of thought and action that could take us toward futures we would wish for our grandchildren and the generations ahead. [RO/IFC/PN]

see also: Adrian Berry; Clarke's Laws; George Friedman; Future History; D S Halacy Jr; Harry Harper.

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