historical stuff by Gareth Millward

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2010 – Wikileaks

07/09/2015

25 July 2010 – The Internet…

Sensitive documents have always been leaked. Sometimes these come from “whistle blowers”, unhappy at the way institutions or government departments have acted. Sometimes these can be deliberately managed by institutions to try to control the media narrative or support their cause. Social media and mass use of the internet, however, have meant that the volume of such leaks has exploded exponentially.
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2009 – H1N1

31/08/2015

25 April 2009 – Geneva

Overall … I consider [the British government’s] response to have been proportionate and effective. There is much good practice on which to build. I heard nothing but praise and admiration from those interviewed for the health service and health protection staff right across the UK who led the response to the pandemic. Their dedication and professionalism … despite the additional pressures of the pandemic must be acknowledged and congratulated.

Deirdre Hine1

Swine ‘flu caused quite a panic in 2009. The associated virus – H1N1 – had been responsible for the great 1918 pandemic that killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people in the wake of the First World War.2 After almost a century without such a devastating pandemic, there were legitimate concerns from health authorities that the disease could cause similar levels of destruction. Read More

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2007 – The iPhone

17/08/2015

29 June 2007

I find it quite hard to believe that the smart phone is less than a decade old. I remember not having a mobile phone, even when many of my friends had them. I didn’t really see the point. Now, I’m like most people in their twenties and glued to my screen.

Of course, I probably don’t use my device any where near to its fullest potential. I’m not like other people at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who use them for detecting eye diseases. But I can tweet. And check football scores. Which is basically the same thing.

If it's not an iPhone, it's... oh. Wait. It is. (Source)

If it’s not an iPhone, it’s… oh. Wait. It is. (Source)

While camera phones and “feature” phones had been around for a good number of years before, it wasn’t until the iPhone that we got the first real “smart phone”. A handheld computer that could connect to the internet using the mobile phone network, and could install third-party applications to perform a multitude of tasks while on the move.

So while “Personal Digital Assistants” (PDAs), camera phones, mobile e-mail devices, messengers and satellite navigation systems were already commonplace, the iPhone was the first to successfully bring these products together into one device.1

Twat taking a selfie.

Twat taking a selfie.

Historians may come to see the rise of the smart phone as a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, we have countless images of daily life in the Western World; and certainly more photographic evidence of life elsewhere than at any other point in history. As people post their lives onto the internet, collating and annotating as they go, we have a rich source of information that will keep cultural historians occupied for decades.

On the other, there is simply too much information. Moreover, we are seeing a world refracted through the lens of the mobile phone camera. To be sure, we have always had to deal with the distorted nature of historical evidence. But it’s becoming unclear where the borders between the “reality” of life and the smart-phone-inflected social media world can be drawn. Perhaps – indeed – that is the point of our times.

Still, they were a key part of what became known as the Arab Spring (c. 2010-13). They have helped document brutality by repressive regimes across the world. And it is not trivial to compare the coverage of beatings in Iran with the shooting of civilians by American police forces in recent years. Amateur still and video footage have become key parts of the rolling news cycle, and not simply because it provides easy and cheap content for broadcasters and newspapers. Rather, they act as fragments of evidence upon which a more rounded journalistic story can be told.2 It may turn out that this is how the history of our time is reconstructed, too.

Smart phones may reflect our place in history, but they’re also helping to create it. When information can be spread so quickly, it gives news and current events the chance to reach people like never before. This may in some way amplify scandals beyond where they may have in the past. “Wrongdoing”, if it captures the mood of the world at a particular moment, can explode into something inescapable. But then, so can acts of kindness and hope. The problem for historians is that these stories used to play out over days, months or even years. Now they can flare, disappear and resurface in a matter of hours.

In fairness, however, this may be perception. It could turn out that each of these microscandals plays into a much longer and more mature narrative than we can appreciate at this moment. Because we are caught in exactly the same hyperbolic cycle. Will these records of the past – which the iPhone has made possible – give us new perspectives? And is what we are doing really new? Or is it simply the massive scale upon which this pub gossip spreads around the planet that makes things seem so much more important than they “really” are?

The author currently owns a Samsung S5. If any manufacturer wants to offer him a new phone for free, he won’t say no.

Cover image by Arnob017. (Source)
  1. Certainly, it was the first to popularise it. I really don’t want to get into this argument with people. Feel free to have a slanging match in the comments, though. See ‘History of the iPhone’, Wikipedia < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_iPhone > (accessed 25 August 2015).
  2. Which is not to say that the media don’t lean heavily on this footage and use it as an opportunity to slack off on occasion…
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2006 – Pluto

10/08/2015

24 August 2006 – Prague

Two and two is four. Apples fall when you drop them. The Battle of Hastings was in 1066. And there are nine planets.

Facts all. On 23 August 2006. Then Neil deGrasse Tyson and his cronies ruined it.

The reaction to Pluto being downgraded from planet to mere dwarf planet got a lot of people angry. Really angry. But, why does it even matter? Whether Pluto is a planet or not doesn’t have a material impact upon our daily lives. It’s still there, orbiting the Sun like it always did. We just don’t think of it as one of the eight planets.

There’s something important about a “fact”. We’re living in a world where there are fewer and fewer of these “facts” that we can hang onto. For an Englishman a couple of hundred years ago it was a fact that there was a God. Now, even the “fact” that men and women should have their own bathrooms is becoming less solid.

Pluto as captured recently by New Horizons. Photo from NASA. (Source)

Pluto as captured recently by New Horizons. Photo from NASA.
(Source)

This isn’t going to descend into the overly simplistic speech from Men In Black. But there is something quite interesting about how facts are socially constructed.

We teach undergraduates pretty early on that there’s no such thing as a fact in history. Sure, we can roughly agree that something called the Second World War ran from 1939 to 1945. But it depends on your definitions. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia could mark the start. Or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Or, even, the declaration of war by the United States. And when did it end? When Germany surrendered? When Japan surrendered? Or did the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe up until the early 1990s count as part of the war?

We’re worthless humanities scholars though. We revel in telling scientists that they’re making it all up. Sort of. The kid at the back of the class thinking they’re cool by scoffing at the teacher.

Yet, the sciences are supposed to deal with facts. Little nuggets of information that are universally true. We spend hours in chemistry classes heating copper sulphate to turn it white – then putting water on it to turn it blue again. This means water is blue, or something.1

We find pretty quickly as we go on, however, that even the scientific world is a little more complicated than it appears in high school classes. Aeroplanes fly by making the air go faster over the top of the wing, reducing the air pressure and sucking it up. (Except that’s not quite true.) The Earth’s gravity pulls things down at 10m/s2. (It doesn’t.)2

The public does hold on to certain social “facts” that keep us going. A kind of “common sense” (or senso commune as Gramsci called it, but he was Italian). Pluto being a planet was one of those things. And so, there was a lot of public anger when this fact was taken away. There didn’t seem much appetite, for example, to upgrade Ceres from asteroid to planet; or to include Makemake and Eris as new planets. Pluto appeared to warrant a place among the planets simply because it was discovered before we realised things were messier in the Solar System than we now believe them to be.

The enduring popularity of shows like QI demonstrates, however, that we sometimes like our facts to be challenged. Partly this gives us an illusion of some sort of inside knowledge that “most” people can’t access. Partly it allows us to explore beyond what we (think we) know. But the big ones don’t tend to go without a fight.

I’ll end with wild speculation. We find truth in the stars. We have done for as long as we have recorded history. The stars were our calendar. Our compass. We on Earth were the centre of that cosmos. Over the years, bloody battles have been fought over the predictions of various forms of astrology; over whether we truly are the centre of the solar system; and later what our place is within a vast, vast universe. Pluto, then, was more than a rock spinning around the Sun. It was the latest in a long line of truths in the heavens that was being taken away.

Either that, or some people REALLY need to get out more. Dude. It’s a rock. Suck it up.

  1. Have I succeeded an making a scientist have a heart attack yet? #TrollMode
  2. Both of these things were taught when I was a school.
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2005 – Hurricane Katrina

03/08/2015

29 August 2005 – New Orleans

It’s been ten years since Katrina tore through the South East of the United States, causing thousands to lose their lives and billions of dollars worth of damage. The impact on people’s lives is being felt to this day.

Photo by Infrogmation. (Source)

Photo by Infrogmation. (Source)

Natural disasters such as this are, for obvious reasons, highly publicised in the media. There is something awesome (in the literal sense of the word) about an unstoppable force, causing so much devastation and producing such dramatic images for television and print. That is not to say the media should be blamed for this.1 These events capture the public imagination, and appetite to hear more about them is clearly there.

Now. This raises a number of questions for historians about how people react to disasters. Living in a country that is so rarely affected by earthquakes, tropical storms, volcanoes or tsunami, my focus is often on the observers. How do those in remote locations deal with the news of disasters?

This matters, because sometimes those people in the remote locations are the ones with the power to act. Indirectly through charitable donations, logistical support and international co-operation; and directly as the heads of governments with direct jurisdiction. What made Katrina so iconic in the popular consciousness was not just the devastation it wrought – it was that the richest country on the planet was completely unable to rebuild one of its most important cities, or provide it with the support that it clearly required.

So many disasters occur in parts of the world that already have myriad issues with their political, economic and transport infrastructure. When just a few months previously the Boxing Day Tsunami hit South East Asian coast, there was a massive reaction from people across the world. British people alone donated over £390 million of private money through organisations such as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), and the government pledged a further £75 million.2

The aftermath of the 2004 tsunami on Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by AusAID. (Source)

The aftermath of the 2004 tsunami on Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by AusAID. (Source)

At the same time, we often do very little (in terms of a percentage of the public finances) to build infrastructure so that these disasters have less of a long-term impact. The foreign aid budget remains a controversial topic, with a not-insignificant proportion of the population who subscribe to the mantra “charity begins at home”. Even when we do give, it is often in a patriarchal relationship, based on a very Western idea of “humanitarianism” to those “other” parts of the world.3

This is not a condemnation – dramatic events often provoke more of a reaction than the general, mundane grind of international poverty. But as a historian, these things matter. They uncover one of those paradoxes of charity, especially in England. We will (as a public) donate our time and/or money to a soup kitchen or food bank – but we won’t commit to the sorts of economic reforms that would provide the levels of social security, housing, employment and health care that would render those charitable acts moot. As one commentator on the welfare state put it in the 1960s, the welfare state is ‘the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff’.4

The VAHS will tell you all about these sorts of nuances, which I don’t have time for here. Suffice to say, Katrina broke a number of the stereotypes. Because this happened in a country that was rich enough and had the infrastructure to clean up New Orleans. And yet for so many political reasons it didn’t.

The criticisms of President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans are widely known. Poor management and planning at all levels of the federal system in the United States led to what can only be accurately described as a clusterfuck.

What is intriguing for historians, however, is the way it exposed on a local level what we often see on the international stage. New Orleans was a poor(er) city, with economic and social problems that extended way beyond the damage inflicted by the hurricane. When Kanye West declared “Bush doesn’t care about black people”, it struck a nerve because it represented decades of neglect of poorer (often black) areas of the country. While the nation united in philanthropic donations and condemnation of the governments’ responses, many of the structural economic problems remain in the Southern United States.

And on that cheery note – don’t take this as an excuse not to donate to DEC appeals. The work they do is vital. But we need to be more critical of the systems which continue to allow natural disasters to do so much damage and last so long when we have the technological know how to fix many of these problems.

  1. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that in future articles, I’m sure…
  2. Saleh Saeed, ‘DEC 50th Anniversary: 2004 Asian Tsunami’, DEC (16 December 2013) < http://www.dec.org.uk/articles/dec-50th-anniversary-2004-asian-tsunami > (accessed 25 August 2015); ‘Humanitarian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake’, Wikipedia < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanitarian_response_to_the_2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake > (accessed 25 August 2015).
  3. Kevin O’Sullivan, ‘Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70’, Journal of Genocide Research 16(2/3) (2004), 299-315.
  4. Megan du Boisson, founder and head of the Disablement Income Group, speaking in an interview: The Times, 1 February 1969.
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2004 – The Facebook

27/07/2015

4 February 2004 – Cambridge, MA

Social media is… no… social media are everywhere. But one true platform rules them all. At least in the West.

Facebook’s reach is rather remarkable compared to other platforms. At the end of 2014, it had 1.4 billion users. By comparison, Twitter – the darling of academics and journalists – has only half a billion.1 That allows a great number of people to communicate easily across the entire world. This can cover everything from organised resistance against oppressive governments to cat pictures. In my comfy little corner of the ivory tower, it’s usually the latter.

Gratuitous cat.

Gratuitous cat.

These new networks have certainly changed the way I communicate with colleagues and friends. Twitter has allowed me to maintain contact with other historians that, once the hangover of the conference has worn off, would have been much more difficult to maintain. I know for a fact that I would have lost complete contact with many of my school friends. Luckily for us, Facebook launched in the United Kingdom very soon after we left for our respective universities.

We had tools to do this when we were teenagers. Internet forums were a way to meet new people, as were the various chat rooms available through mainstream sites and over the Internet Relay Chat protocol. Incidentally, if parents are worried today about what their wee bairns are up to on Snapchat, then imagine what your kids would have been up to on a totally insecure and anonymous chat protocol that your parents weren’t internet savvy enough to understand. Sorry, mum and dad. Don’t worry. My virginity wasn’t taken by a 43-year-old lorry driver.2

a/s/l?

a/s/l?

But this isn’t about my dalliance with Frank in the glorious summer of ’01. This is about history. And social media provide some tricky problems for historians. They are usually hidden behind security measures. Facebook, for instance, has myriad privacy settings, and most people will only be able to read (or are likely to find) content posted and linked to by their friends.

At the RESAW conference at Aarhus this year, this was explored in detail. Historians of the internet are now starting to use the archived material of the web. But social media aren’t necessarily the web. Apps are very often used to access the data held on the sevices’ servers. While tweets, for example, may be public, you need to read them in a specific context. People use feeds of individuals’ “microblogs”. The Library of Congress can hold all this information, but how on earth are we going to make sense of it?

So much has been lost. Of course, history has also lost the verbal conversations of working class people down the pub; or the discussions held late into the night of the eighteenth-century coffee house. What is more frustrating is that we KNOW people wrote and sent these messages to each other. All we can ever read of them are the occasional snippets that happen to survive in other forms of blog, journal or personal data files.

Bulletin Board Systems in the 1980s have been mostly lost – though we do have histories that can be told.3. Geocities has been shut down – though we do have an archive we can begin to analyse.4 But the meat of the content is gone, and won’t be coming back. How much of the stuff we have now will go the same way?

We are trying to record this stuff. But as a historian of post-war Britain, I am more interested in a larger question – how has (or will) social media change the way Britons behave. What has changed in our personal relationships; the way we meet; the way we part; the ways we vote, organise, and understand the universe? Having lived through it, I can’t tell if I’ve changed the way I behave because I’m getting older, because of the technology and social fabric of Britain, or – more likely – because of the relationship between the two.

This may be a question we can only answer with some historical distance. But it’s worth asking now. Perhaps my 30-for-60 in 2045 will be able to give a more useful conclusion…

The eagle-eyed amongst you will note this piece was written and published on 9 August 2015. The publication date on this WordPress entry has been changed so that the weekly update pattern is maintained in the database, and the post appears in the right order.
  1. ‘Facebook’, Wikipedia < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook > (accessed 9 August 2015); ‘Twitter’, Ibid. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook > (accessed 9 August 2015).
  2. Despite his best efforts.
  3. See the work of Kevin Driscoll at his personal site
  4. Ditto Ian Milligan.
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2003 – The Iraq War Protests

20/07/2015

15 February 2003 – Various

Despite the numbers, the war went ahead anyway. The images over the following years became almost as iconic as those of the millions marching through London and other cities. Bush in front of the “Mission Accomplished” sign; the toppling of the Saddam statue; the subsequent trial and execution. The question is, then – what was the fucking point?

The protest failed to achieve its main goal, but it is beginning to be historicised into a wider narrative of mass protest and voluntary action. It was in many ways one of the first “internet” demonstrations, with millions of protesters brought together through digital technologies such as e-mail and websites. (This is before Facebook and Twitter. But more on these in upcoming weeks). Movements such as Occupy may have had similar headline “failures”, but they have acted as a focal point for protest against the dominant neo-liberal political framework in the Western world.

Indeed, the breakdown of the party systems in Britain and America especially has made this sort of extra-Parliamentary form of protest increasingly potent and necessary. For while the Labour Party and Conservative Party differ on a number of ideological points, many of the key decisions about how to run foreign and domestic affairs have converged. Neither supports nationalisation of key public services; both believe in a strong military, including a nuclear arsenal; both play the realpolitik game of getting close to dictatorships in various parts of the world in return for good arms contracts and a steady supply of oil. Crucially, both supported the Iraq War, even if there were dissenting members from the parties at the time and subsequently.

This has been going on for a while, however. Voluntary organisations and charities have always been politically driven – you cannot set out to solve a social problem without doing so. While many of the larger institutions have, in the past, steered well clear of party politics, there has often been a direct or indirect moral cajoling of those in local and national government to enact policies that will help charities get on with their vital work.

In the 1960s, however, we began to see more assertive groups coming forward. Charities that did not necessarily provide services themselves, but deliberately spent their money on researching the social problems of the day and lobbying the government to fix it. The Child Poverty Action Group, Disability Income Group, Shelter and many others appeared during this time. They were willing and able to use the growing mass media to present their cases in ever-increasingly sophisticated ways. And, to varying degrees, they have had success with governments of both parties right across the late-twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

The growing professionalism of those groups in this new political climate, however, meant that they became specialised. Social campaigners may have had many concerns, but the charities themselves were often very narrowly-focused. The big questions – traditionally the preserve of the political parties – were beginning to be diffused through a range of institutions and organisations, few of whom would ever hold direct power in Westminster or City Hall.

The Iraq protest, then, represented more than just the war. For many, it was the first time in a generation that people had been able to broadly agree on a particular action and – crucially – had the tools to mobilise quickly and effectively across the world. Occupy, and the struggles of the 99% have been similarly branded. They represent growing disquiet on, predominantly, the political left with the party system and the post-war levers and apparatus that are supposed to impose democratic will on the law of the land. That they have been unsuccessful may say more about the increasing distance between the machinery of government and the people than it does about the protesters themselves.

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2002 – The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics

13/07/2015

8 February 2002 – Salt Lake City

My mother once told me of a place,
With waterfalls an unicorns flying.
Where there was no suffering, no pain.
Where there was laughter instead of dying.
I always thought she’d made it up,
To comfort me in times of pain.
But now I know that place is real,
Now I know its name.

~ The Book of Mormon

Why wouldn’t you want to hold a Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah? Where the warlords are friendly and the goat meat is plentiful? Well, we know why you would hold an Olympics there – flagrant corruption.

The Salt Lake City Olympics bidding process opened up the lid on the systemic nepotism and bribery within the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the systems for awarding Games to host cities. It resulted in a number of reforms to clean up the system and the IOC’s reputation. Thankfully, nothing like this will ever happen again…

In a completely and utterly unrelated story:

It can be difficult sometimes to justify to people who don’t like sport just why I spend so much of my time watching it. Even if you can explain the attraction of watching people compete and the narratives that flow from that, how exactly do you explain away the rampant commercialism, corruption, sexism, racism, homophobia and various other unsavoury aspects of so many sports and their governing organisations?

Corruption in sport is – shockingly – not new. The “old boys’ networks” from the old British Public School system helped establish the rules for a number of sports in the late nineteenth century, from various versions of football to tennis and beyond. This was part of a Victorian desire to rationalise and standardise sport across the globe, so that everyone was playing by the same rule books. Sport was part of a masculine1 and Christian ideal, supposedly requiring and encouraging self discipline and athletic prowess. By the end of that century and the beginning of the twentieth, international sporting organisations popped up to express these ideals through nationalistic competition.

That nationalism was a key tool for regimes across the twentieth century, some authoritarian, some democratic. Italy “borrowed” a number of soccer players from Argentina to win the 1934 and 1938 FIFA World Cups (and may have slipped a coin or two in the pockets of the referees for good measure). The Nazis made a big play to host the 1936 Olympics. After 1945, the USSR and USA used a number of sports, mostly Olympic, to play out the Cold War in the sports stadium. Soccer teams have been integral to the post-1991 independent states in Eastern Europe and their national identities.

This explains why, say, Salt Lake City was keen to have a Winter Olympics. The eyes of the world would be on them, giving the place legitimacy. It’s why Qatar wanted a FIFA World Cup. It’s why the English were so angry when they didn’t get it.

There is another side to the corruption coin, however, which makes uncomfortable reading for countries who were part of that initial elite 100 years or so ago. Because the rest of the world has had to fight hard to be taken seriously alongside the traditional nations of Western Europe and North America. It took until 2002 before a FIFA World Cup went to Asia; 2010 before one went to Africa. We’re yet to have an African Olympics, Summer or Winter. And we’re a year away from the first ever South American one.

In the case of FIFA, the English/European oligarchy was swept aside in the 1970s under the leadership of João Havelange from Brazil. He appealed to the traditionally neglected nations, and built a large power base outside Europe. In some ways, this was a way to finally wrest control from the closed-shop in Europe. But it was built on giving bonuses to officials with… questionable ethics. No doubt, football investment has improved dramatically in Africa and Asia. But how much would have it have improved if officials weren’t trousering so much of the money?

Now, of course, Sal Tlay Ka Siti was in the United States – not exactly a sporting backwater. But it had been repeatedly overlooked. They believed the reason for this was that they weren’t wining and dining officials as well as their rivals. They may have been right. Though their solution wasn’t. They decided to bribe their way to the Olympics.

Perhaps it was right. They got the games, after all. But it nearly brought down the IOC and resulted in widespread reform.

There’s a question that international sport really needs to tackle, then. It doesn’t want corruption. At the same time, the West isn’t willing to give up its power. The arguments that other nations are not mature enough to be involved, economically or in terms of their business practices, can only go so far. How can they get better if they are never invited to the table?

Similarly, we cannot condone corruption simply because it allows non-traditional nations a shot at the big time. Qatar shouldn’t have a World Cup for the same reason it shouldn’t have a Winter Olympics. The climate isn’t right, the human rights record should see it kicked out of the international community, and it will help none of their citizens; it’s a vanity project for an absolute monarchy trying to buy credibility and prestige with the West.

People in the non-traditional countries deserve more from FIFA, the IOC and their ilk. More than that, though, they deserve more from the people who supposedly represent them.

Title image from Wikicommons.
  1. Although women were similarly encouraged into sport for the good of the race, especially with eugenic theories running wild through the period.
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2001 – September 11

06/07/2015

11 September 2001 – New York, Arlington, VA, Shanksville, PA

xkcd (Source)

xkcd (Source)

The terrorist attacks on “9/11” were horrific. The sheer scale of the damage, the cultural significance of the targets, and the fact that this exposed the vulnerability of “the most powerful nation on Earth” made most of the Western world uneasy. Whatever the geopolitical position in the Middle East, whatever the West’s role in the historical and continued instability in the region, the hijackings were barbaric acts. Read More

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