Keynote Lecture – Virtual Communities, Virtual Cultures, Virtual Governance By Peter Ludlow

26 10 2009

Ludlow PolaroidSpeaker: Peter Ludlow (Northwestern University)

Full title: Virtual Communities, Virtual Cultures, Virtual Governance

Discipline: Philosophy

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21 responses

26 10 2009
Scott Noegel

Dear Peter,

What a fascinating talk. Very thought provoking indeed. I hope you don’t mind, but your paper left me with several mostly unrelated questions.

First, do you think that the values expressed and lived in online cultures will ever leak into living world cultures? While experimenting with SL I recently visited Saudi Arabia. (My expertise is in the Near East, so it was natural.) To my surprise there was nothing Islamic about it. I could not even find a mosque. It made me wonder what would happen if young people in Saudi Arabia began to experience the virtual Saudi Arabia. Would this plant the seeds of democracy? Might it be used tendentiously in this way by governments? Or perhaps this is already being done?

With regard to the reputation pages you discussed. It seems to me that these also could be exploited by hate groups as a coercive tool to blackball virtual people–a virtual McCarthy. How does one prevent this?

I also wonder what the gender breakdown is in these virtual worlds. A recent piece, I think in the Chronicle of Higher Education, noted that the vast majority of people who contribute to Wikipedia are men. Is this also true of SL? And how would one know since no one really knows the true gender of someone in SL?

Finally, where do you think these virtual worlds are headed? What is the evolutionary (for lack of a better word) trajectory of this?

Thanks again for a great talk,

Scott

26 10 2009
Eileen Joy

Peter / ‘Uri’: thanks very much for your talk. I am reviewing a book by Luciana Parisi, “Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Bio-Technology, and the Mutations of Desire,” which opens with a chapter on virtual sex, so I am interested in these so-called virtual worlds and what goes on in them. Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “artifice is fully part of nature,” and I wonder what you think about that in relation to what you sketched out in your talk today. I was personally intrigued by how quickly groups establish themselves and then engage in skirmishes with each other [as well as in how certain "terrorist" figures arise, such as a "griefer," although they do not seem to have any serious political, religious, or other motivation in their actions, such as real terrorists do], and therefore, also with the issue of violence in this world. Obviously, the violence is not real, but it seems a lot of real-world replication is going on here, in terms of interpersonal and inter-group relations, as opposed to something completely “new” emerging. On the one hand, it’s a “game”; on the other hand, it has all sorts of tentacles in the real world [not to mention, real persons sitting at real computers are engineering it, manipulating it, and entering in and out of it], and this raises the question of whether or not virtual worlds might provide some sort of real information, philosophies, sociologies, psychologies, governmentalities, etc. *to* the so-called real world, or whether they simply provide outlets/relief from the real world.

At the conclusion of your talk, you seemed to indicate that we could learn something from the way disputes are resolved in Second Life [in the one case: a kind of Second Life chieftan sitting down with an aggrieved individual party], but I can’t see that this isn’t a lesson we’ve already learned in real life/history [as a medievalist, I kept thinking of Second Life as a tenth-century Iceland]. At the same time, there is no real “authority” or government in Second Life [other than its corporate "owner"], so of course any governance that would emerge would be based on power relations within the “game.” And that’s just my issue, I guess: how do we move away from these power relations that, whether real or virtual, have such a stranglehold on our modalities of relationality?

Thanks again for such a stimulating talk.

26 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Scott

It’s interesting that there are no mosques in virtual Saudi Arabia, especially since there are some impressive and beautiful mosques scattered throughout SL (or have been). So the question is, could SL give you a way of visualizing where you live in a different way. There was an interesting case of an SL person who was an agoraphobic, and he made an avatar that resembled himself closely and he would walk around in SL so that he could visualize himself in public settings. Could we do that with virtual worlds to visualize new models for our terrestrial homes?

Your question about using reputational systems to blackball people is a very serious concern. There are systems in second life that share information about alleged trouble makers and the people on the list are banned from the properties of everyone who subscribes to the system. But how do we know that people deserve to be banned? There is no due process and no obvious way to clear your name. This may be the sort of problem that can’t be solved in the abstract. Reputational systems can be used to harm people. It is the dark side of such systems.

SL claims that 40% of their users are women. My guess would be that among active users it goes over 50%. Obviously the numbers from SL can’t be perfect (I assume they come from billing information, which could be mom’s credit card) but that % more or less squares with my experience of the place (and the people I’ve met offline).

The main thing about the trajectory of virtual worlds is that they are going to be ubiquitous, like web sites. As flash animation and the basic ingredients of web browsing become more sophisticated the ability to make virtual worlds will soon be in the hands of all of us. It already is in places like Metaplace. That trend should accelerate.

26 10 2009
Eileen Joy

Another question I had, Peter, was how some persons in Second Life, who are not necessarily academics, feel about being the subject of academic inquiry. I have not yet read your books, but I assume you spend a lot of time in SL, not just as a gamer/avatar, but as a researcher/observer. And I know, too, that a lot of universities set up virtual educational/research centers within Second Life, so there is already bleed-through between the academic and gaming aspects of Second Life, of course, but I was curious about the relationship between those who view Second Life as an alternative pluriverse and those who view it as an object of intellectual inquiry.

26 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Eileen, let me take your second point first — the one about governance. It is very cool that you brought up the example of the Icelandic chieftains. There is a documentary called “Another Perfect World” which is about governance in virtual worlds and the climax of the documentary is when a group of players in the game EVE Online are elected members of the players council and are flown to Iceland, where the maker of the game is based. In a great scene, an officer of the company is addressing the kids our on a barren volcanic landscape and he tells them “you are the chieftains.”

Now as you point out those players don’t have any real power yet, since the game company controls everything. But could the players seize power? This is a possibility that I have been fascinated with for a long time. Interestingly, one of the corporate officers makes the historical point that if you don’t use your power wisely people will seize it from you — and he meant the users!

In the meantime, of course, there are inter-player dynamics and I always used to think of this as being like high school social dynamics. There are the cool kids and the trouble makers and the geeks. The tools for getting power are the social tools familiar from high school. Hazing people, berating them, handing out social status if you happen to be in a position of social power.

On your first point, I would say that we should expect to see a two way flow between virtual worlds and the real world. People from diverse backgrounds enter these worlds, bringing ideas and social norms with them, and these ideas get remixed and then return to the non-virtual world. I don’t think that there is anything fundamentally different about the ideas that are developed in virtual worlds, but I do think that they can accelerate the pace and which ideas are remixed and returned to RL.

26 10 2009
Mitch Parsell

Hi Peter,

Wonderful talk with some very interesting points.

I would like to focus on two issues that are broadly related to ethics and virtual communities (my own particular obsession).

First, at the outset you define virtual communities as people separated by space engaged in broad social activities. I accept something like this is surely the right way to think about v. communities, but I wonder how far you would be willing to push the “broad” criterion. There appear to be any number of extremely narrowcast virtual social groups with highly engaged participants that have been relatively long-lived in the virtual world. Unless you are being stipulative with your definition these should count as robust communities. Indeed, the academic communities you mention are also pretty narrowcast: philosophy journals are only interested in philosophy. One of the wonderfully attractive, but also potentially problematic (See http://www.springerlink.com/content/p737755248127761/), features of the present web is the ability to create very focused social groups. I agree lol cats is out, but how much further would you push the need for broad interaction and what reason is behind it?

Second, I agree the best governance is internally generated and that the catalyst for the development of norms is generally internal disruption. Further, I agree the ideal is for these norms to evolve from open discussion of issues by participants. But want happens when this breakdown? E.g. was it right for Mr Bungle to be barred from LambdaMoo? Or for a more contemporary example, would it be permissible for members of EVE to call for the barring of Guiding Hand Social Club?

Thanks again for a wonderful talk.

27 10 2009
Jenboyle

Peter,

Thank you for this talk — very interesting.

I want to offer a comment about how you’re imagining the virtual in this particular talk. You opened the talk with the idea of “fringiness,” and how fringe communities can offer us insights into virtual worlds. Yet, there does not seem to be much of a fringe here in terms of the conceptual and structural apparatuses employed to read these virtual environments. Specifically, I am struck by how non-virtual these worlds seem. That is, the virtual simulacrum (and we can imagine a range of contemporary and historical references for the term: from the Greek “phantasia” or Lucretius’ floating perceptual skins, to Massumi and Heim’s metaphysics) argues for an almostness, a proximity that ultimately fails as a condition of conceptual or structural fixity. Virtuality points to the unstable condition of becoming: becoming real, becoming artificial (over and again)

In your discussion of SL, this unstable proximity becomes fairly fixed: these worlds are assumed to function as “primitives” and “crucibles,” whose boundaries are in many ways non-permeable (or permeable, perhaps, but structurally and conceptually consistent). To some extent this is unavoidable, since you bring a productive seriousness to your study of these spaces, taking them seriously on their own terms. That said, the structural patterns that emerge via your reading seem to privilege some very familiar conceptual “real” formalisms. You end with a nod toward a kind of postmodern evolutionary structure, where the virtual “tribal” both precedes and supercedes realworld contemporary governance.

By comparison, I mention a recent NY Times article covering NY Times Reporter, David Rhode, and his account of escape from captivity after being held by the Taliban (http://projects.nytimes.com/held-by-the-taliban/#intro). Part four of this series (itself a virtual reenactment of the ordeal) is “Through the Eyes of Jihadist,” a narration of how Rhode’s twenty-something captors imagined their relationship with the political and religious ideologies surrounding their mission. What is so striking about this piece is 1) the way in which it depicts how gaming, virtual, and new media environments played a significant role in how the captors perceived international governance and religious ideology and, 2) how these structures emerge as a wild mash-up of translation between the virtual and real worlds. There is nothing structurally or conceptually coherent or “immersive” about the virtual in the NY Times example.

I am fascinated and compelled by the extent to which you offer up immersion as almost synonymous with your reading of the virtual in SL. Yet, I wonder if such immersion does not distract us at this moment from another version of the virtual: in constant interplay with the micro and macro structures of the “real”; a confabulation that can’t fully divide the two, but which exposes the seams between them nonetheless. It seems to me that there is a different notion of power in play in the NY Times example that is entirely not about “seizing” or “losing” power within a closed set of parameters (real or virtual). Your nod to the historical references in the “razing” episode seems to move this direction, but then appears to argue for mimesis over mash-up.

27 10 2009
Jenny Weeks

Dear Peter
I too found it a very interesting talk, once I was able to download it. We have very poor bandwidth here in New Zealand.
As a fascinated novice with very little time between study and real life I have not had the opportunity to wander SL as much as I would have liked this year and was intrigued by the disputes that you highlighted. What is clear to me is that the level of investment, be it emotional, time or financial in SL will obviously have the same effects on the person behind the avatar as any RW dispute simply because, in many cases we are dealing with the same level of investment. Therefore it would seem to me that an attack on an avatar would be almost the same on a cognitive and emotional level as a personal attack on the RW self. I guess for those that make a living from SL these feelings are heightened in disputes and the level of threat which carries no real recourse in law (unlike the legal protections in RL) leaves one with a feeling of powerlessness.

Your thoughts on SL acting like a crucible for a blending of norms is fascinating, full of possibilities and one I hadn’t really got around to thinking about yet, because if you think about it the real world we live in has taken??? to learn about thus far? The research possibilities are endless.

I used to watch my son play video games and think they were just games and didn’t understand why he got so upset when he lost his stuff to someone bigger and stronger and realized that the investment in the avatar identity is about belonging to somewhere, investment in time and status, similar to our real life identity. My avatar is not well developed due to my lack of time but I still feel it when people are mean and found myself shocked with how strongly I identified with her quite early in my journey. Virtual worlds offer a window to view ourselves differently and work out possibilities before letting them loose on the real world. Isn’t it exciting?!

Thanks for giving me even more to think about!

27 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Eileen. My writing on Second Life is not grounded in my conducting studies but just in my being there and hanging out and doing my thing (roleplaying/being the publisher of a virtual newspaper). When I was at the University of Michigan I did contact the IRB and asked them if what I was doing fell under their purview and they said no. It would hard to be a philosopher if every observation of human behavior you made required going to the IRB. Obviously if you set out to observe particular individuals (avatars) or behaviors then considerations about human subjects will be a factor. Obviously there will be borderline cases.

27 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Mitch: Two good questions.

First, I don’t suppose that there will be a neat distinction between groups that count as communities and those that don’t. I’m inclined to think, however, that the breadth of communication and practices shared by philosophers is broader than you suggest: if journal articles were the only communications then I would say there is no community. But groups of philosophers communicate with each other about almost everything to the point that they become surrogate families. I assume that holds for all academics. But yes, there certainly will be cases where we are not able to say whether we are talking about communities or not.

Your second question: are there cases where it becomes appropriate for the game gods to step in and rectify a situation that the users cannot? Maybe a better solution would be to give the users tools to control griefers. To some extent this is the direction that virtual world makers have gone. You mention the case from Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace”. (http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle.html) Should Mr. Bungle have been banned or should Haakon have given the users some other tools to deal with Bungle? These are hard questions but surely any action of the form Haakon took should be regarded as extraordinary and not routine, and it should require explicit justification. If the action does not conform to established policies then it ought include the case for the policy.

27 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Jenboyle: You are not wrong to think that I am reading virtual worlds much as I would the so-called real world. I don’t think there is fundamentally an interesting difference between the two and for that matter I think that the distinction collapses all over the place (e.g. in the cases of currencies, and social groups). Basically my view is that any social object can slide between virtual worlds and the real world almost without restriction. It’s also the case that I don’t think we need new tools or methods for reading (trying to understand virtual worlds).

This having been said, I’m not assuming any real fixity to the structures in virtual worlds, just as I wouldn’t assume fixity for real world structures. They are relational, organic, rapidly evolving, and fleeting. When I speak of a “primitive object” I am talking about the geometric shapes that one must rez to build something. We don’t need to cling to the term “crucible”; I would just be happy to say that virtual worlds are nexus where diverse ideas and cultures converge and get mashed up. As I said in a comment above this happens in the real world too; I just think that the process is accelerated in virtual worlds.

I don’t remember using the term “immersion” but if I did I must have leaned on it too heavily. I don’t think of virtual worlds as places apart that we go to (and are immersed in). For me it is more like walking into the next room. Or better, a part of the room that is not clearly divided off from the main room. I can even drop the room talk if you like.

27 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Jenny Weeks. Towards the end of your comment you said something to the effect that you identify with your avatar. I wouldn’t put it that way because I think that it just *is* you in the virtual world. The avatar is just your mode of presentation. If that’s right, then of course you feel badly when someone is mean to your avatar — they are being mean to you, and more or less directly.

I agree with you that it is still very interesting how intensely we can feel things in virtual worlds, and how we can be very much at risk in these worlds. I know that Hubert Dreyfus has a critique of virtual worlds in which he claims that there is no risk involved, but he couldn’t be further from the truth. In my island in Second Life we have had two apparent suicides in the past year, and both may have been second life related. I co-wrote a story about one of them. You might find it interesting. Here is the link:

http://www.hplusmagazine.com/articles/virtual-reality/virtual-life-actual-death

28 10 2009
Jenny Weeks

Hi Peter

Thank you for your response.
I think you are right that the avatar ‘is’ you. I think when we are in the throws of reading about a topic you absorb jargon and we need to be clear when try to define what we mean. Thanks for that I am writing up assignments at the moment and you straightened me up :-)
I viewed the story you co-wrote and which I was very thought provoking and provides a pertinent reminder, that while we must look out for ourselves and our own feelings in SL and all online groups, we have a duty to be clear with others of our motives. This may be hard for those who really want to conceal their real life identity but we need to be aware of the depth of feelings of others and the possibility we may have a stronger impact on them than we think.
It brought back a memory I had of when I emigrated to New Zealand and a couple of people we had known quite well, but not intimately seemed more upset than some family members. I was quite disturbed that I hadn’t noticed the impact of the relationship on them over time. Possibly a reason to be more concerned in the virtual world as many have said intimacy can happen very quickly.
Another interesting story you may or may not have heard appeared on the Second Life researchers listserv
eshiotawara.com
This story resulted in a fascinating discussion thread which has spanned several weeks.

Once again thank you
Jenny

28 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Jenny

Thanks for that link to the piece by Eshi, that was very interesting indeed.

The issue about hiding identities is also worth reflecting about. I think its a mistake to suppose that the “real” identity is always the one in meat space and not online. It may well be that many people are much more honest about themselves online than, say, at their jobs or with their families in real life. We can imagine lots of reasons for this. So then the issue is not hiding their identity but not wanting their identities linked.

Maybe we should be *more* honest about who we are when we are online, because there are fewer excuses for us to be deceptive. That is to say there are fewer social, cultural, religious pressures on us to behave in a certain way when we are in our avatar modes of presentation.

Accordingly, if we find ourselves acting in a transgressive way online we shouldn’t pretend that that isn’t we ourselves acting in this way. It is really a call for us to reflect on who we are and why we are acting that way.

Similarly, this is a reason to be sensitive to the feelings of others online.

28 10 2009
Adam Brown

Many thanks for an intriguing and well presented paper Peter, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I would like to add some brief observations somewhat related to the issue of whether the player/user “is” the avatar, and vice versa. In teaching communication studies (with a focus on new media), my colleagues and I have been situating Second Life on a spectrum of increasing interactivity/virtuality etc., which positions SL further along the spectrum than many other media – even though online games such as World of Warcraft are reasonably close to it in many ways. Curiously, undergraduate students in our classes are very (I should say extremely) dismissive of any relationship between SL and another online community format (which is, not coincidentally, much more widely used by the students in question), Facebook. Like SL, Facebook as an online virtual community has transformed what is perceived to be a ‘real’ friendship/relationship/action and so on. Nonetheless, at least in my experience of adolescents/young adults, SL seems to have breached a ‘comfort barrier’ of, well, what is seen and accepted as ‘real’, and encounters much skepticism. The notions of ‘identity’ being a multi-faceted construct and ‘reality’ a constantly re-worked construction itself (these days I find myself using the terms ‘virtual’ and ‘non-virtual’ when discussing new media) remain contentious in the classroom and elsewhere. While I would not claim these observations to be representative, I would be interested in your experiences in this regard.

Hopefully my ramblings have made some sense. Thanks again for your paper.

28 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

@Adam.

I think maybe the reason your students feel the facebook relationships are more real or genuine than Second Life relations is a function of time, not really because these are differences in kind. That is, our facebook identities are avatarish too. The difference is that we typically already know the people we friend on facebook (some of them I have known for 45 years!) Of *course* we feel those relationships are more genuine. They probably are. But as you spend more time online you do get closer to people and can form what I would consider to be genuine friendships. I even feel this in places like EVE Online where we don’t even see the other person but just their spaceship. Over time you start to be friends with other spaceship pilots.

28 10 2009
Arnon Cahen

Hi Peter,

Thank you so much for a very exciting talk, and for the highly engaging discussion that it has elicited.

I have posted a discussion of your talk on the Philosophy Compass blog, The Philosopher’s Eye, at http://philosophycompass.wordpress.com/

I titled my blog post ‘Virtual Worlds: A Social Experiment of Real Value’, since what I find most interesting about your talk is that it shows how Second Life, or other virtual world platforms, provides a novel approach to social research. In the end of your talk, you make some suggestive remarks in that direction, and I wonder if you could expand on them a little here.

My thought is that social research is in a somewhat uncomfortable position relative to other empirical sciences. Unlike chemistry, physics, biology, etc., much of the research done in the social sciences is conducted only on the basis of observations of case studies. When explaining the interface dynamics of different communities or cultures and when explaining the development of social institutions, for example, we are almost invariably limited to extracting generalizations from the set of phenomena (present and historical) afforded by the real world. We have little or no capacity to intervene in the mechanisms underlying such interface dynamics or social evolution. We are thus at an epistemic disadvantage with respect to these mechanisms. At most, it seems our theories can (more or less accurately) provide redescriptions of the phenomena, rather than a causal explanatory framework for understanding (explaining and predicting) such dynamics/development.

What is most exciting about Second Life is that it provides a model for society that does allow for intervention and manipulation – much like how a rat is a model for studying the human brain/mind. We cannot intervene (except in rare cases or using specific techniques like TMS) into the various brain mechanisms underlying cognitive function (for obvious ethical reasons). But we can get some understanding of human cognitive mechanisms by studying the rat/cat/monkey/etc. brain/mind. Similarly, Second Life does not merely provide us an additional batch of interesting cases studies, but it allows us to intervene into the mechanisms underlying social development. As such, it can provide us a rare insight into the causally relevant variables that control social dynamics. This seems to me to be a methodology of revolutionary proportions to the advancement of social research.

I am wondering if you could share some of your thoughts about how you think virtual worlds can supplement the methodology of the social sciences.

Many thanks,
Arnon Cahen

31 10 2009
Peter Ludlow

Hi Arnon, thanks for posting the link on Philosophy Compass.

You raise an interesting question about using virtual worlds as tools for doing research in social sciences. Claims of the relevance of this have been made by Nick Yee at Stanford, who did some work that suggested that gaze and distance transfers from real life into virtual worlds (it is hard to know since avatar gaze is tricky business). That is pretty interesting, but he then offers the strong (and in my opinion unsupported) hypothesis that …

“our social interactions in online virtual environments, such as Second Life, are governed by the same social norms as social interactions in the physical world. ”

He then suggests that this allows that we could use virtual worlds to study human social interaction more generally”

“This finding has significant implications for using virtual worlds to study human social interaction. If people behave according to the same social rules in both physical and virtual worlds even though the mode of movement and navigation is entirely different (i.e., using keyboard and mouse as opposed to bodies and legs), then this means it is possible to study social interaction in virtual environments and generalize them to social interaction in the real world.”

Maybe, but that seems to be jumping way out in front of the available data.

There is some criticism of his study in the Alphaville Herald here:

http://www.secondlifeherald.com/slh/2007/02/eavesdropping_i.html

2 11 2009
Arnon Cahen

Hi Peter,

Thanks for the response. I’ve looked at the link you attached. Very interesting.

Indeed there seem to be many barriers to cross before we can generalize from SL to real world. However, it seems to me that there are two points worth mentioning. First, that even if, contrary to Yee, we find that much of the social norms governing SL are quite different from those in RL, that in itself is a wonderfully interesting result and should not be disparaged. It too can shed light on the status of the norms governing RL. For example, if we find some homology in social organization in SL and RL, as you suggest in your talk that we do, then the differences between the social interactions underlying that organization in SL and those in RL provide insight into the distinction between those variables that are central (or, dare I say, essential) to such organization and those that are perhaps merely contingent upon the circumstances of RL. E.g., we can see which variables between SL and RL are ‘washed out’ in the service of forming a community and pursuing a shared goal.

Second, and relatedly, the focus of the studies mentioned is on interpersonal interactions. At the level of person-to-person (or avatar-to-avatar) interaction, I think we should not expect much by way of analogy with RL. This precisely because there are differences in the constraints that RL and SL place on such interactions. E.g., in SL you can talk to someone 30 virtual meters away, but the shape of the real world does not afford such interaction (at least not comfortably). Instead on focusing on such interactions that are governed in large part by the physical surroundings of the world in which they occur, where we would expect to find strong distinctions, we should focus on the emergent, higher-level, social phenomena – the formation of communities, the distinctions among communities and their interactions, their progression into the status of cultures, and the mechanisms of conflict resolution that become a necessity. At this higher level, the physicality of RL becomes less relevant. It is at this level that we should expect to find interesting homologies.

Finally, I really think that the main point is that SL allows us to manipulate and intervene in a variety of higher level processes, something that is simply unavailable to social researchers. The fact that there are similarities and differences at different levels of social interaction and organization should not be a discouragement from utilizing SL in social research. On the contrary. The same issues arise whenever one uses one system to model another, e.g., when using monkeys as models in the study of human cognition.

Again, thanks for the inspiring talk.

2 11 2009
Peter Ludlow

As a follow up to my response to Arnon, here is a post from Pixels and Policy on some problems with extrapolating results about rw economies from vw economies:

http://www.pixelsandpolicy.com/pixels_and_policy/2009/11/virtual-economies.html

3 11 2009
Peter Ludlow

@ Arnon again.

I think there is more than homology between rl and SL social objects. I think there may well be identity. But it still doesn’t follow that results in one domain carry over to the other, for the simple reason that the contexts are very different. For example, the same person may act very differently in a bar than they would in church. That seems to be a simple case where even identity is not enough to ensure that results will carry over.

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