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This paper reviews the most ambitious attempt to date to create an interactive history of technology site on the Web, Science and Technology in the Making. Five projects deal with contemporary technological developments. The review describes the projects within the network and evaluates each according to its historiographic contribution, its user-friendliness as a site, the nature of the feedback and added value over conventional print-media. The sites were diverse in their quality both as examples of interactive media, and as history. While the number of contributions to all of them was disappointingly small, the best did hold out hope for the uses of the genre. The review concludes that the network as an integrating framework both added coherence and permitted flexibility.
Science and Technology in the Making (STIM) is a network of five history of technology web sites supported by a two-year grant from the Alfred P.Sloan Foundation [See Appendix 1]. STIM is of intrinsic interest to multimedia historians both for its content and as a window into the process of conceptualizing and constructing interactive historical web sites.
This `virtual research environment' is the brainchild of Timothy Lenoir, Professor of History at Stanford University in California. His original vision is well-documented in the initial grant proposal. For Lenoir recent technology is a subject of discourse as well as a potential tool for contemporary historians. He argues that traditional historical methods are inadequate for analysing and describing modern complex technological systems. Paper archives and linear narratives alone, are no longer sufficient in an increasingly electronic world (Bolter 1991, Lanham 1993). The advent of new media (email, software, data tapes, video, CD-ROMs, DVDs, simulations, etc.) presents scholars with novel historical material and an array of technical and historiographic conundrums. What should they do with electronic texts preserved in obsolete software? Or how best can they convert original paper documents into digital form as Interactivities and Archives? A primary question addressed in the proposal was: `From the perspective of working historians, is it possible to perform new and better history of technology, accessing data not previously available to historians, using contemporary Web-based technologies?'
The STIM project was designed to test whether the web environment is suitable for gathering new kinds of historical materials and disseminating the data to professional historians and to a broader audience. It was recognized by the investigators that the process of making such primary sources accessible could be problematic. New skills are required to arrange and integrate 'and make available several hundreds of threaded e-mail messages, electronically submitted 'documents', and digitized historical material'. In the event, the number of responses received on the actual web sites appear to have been far from overwhelming. Nonetheless, structuring the data in a sensible manner was a challenge that some investigators met more successfully than others.
In encouraging responses, STIM opens up the possibility of real-time interaction between the evolving historical account and the scholar's `historical subjects'. Instead of responding to published histories, witnesses are able to participate in the history-writing exercise through emailing their own accounts, sending in artifacts or original paper documents, or simply by expressing an opinion. As the investigators point out, `These on-line contributions become the `stuff of history'. Thus a broader range of people and perspectives can influence the way historical events are recorded and interpreted.
This more democratic approach to history may be facilitated by the Web, but has its roots elsewhere. The oral and public history movement set the precedent with personal interviews, audio and visual recording. In recent years, oral historians, such as Roy Rosenzweig (1995) of George Mason Univesity in Virginia and Stephen Brier (1998) of City University of New York, have gravitated to new media such as CD-ROMs and the Web. Their knowledge and techniques have been incorporated into recent historical enterprises like the electronic Journal for MultiMedia History .
It is to be hoped that some of the lessons oral historians have learned about the art of interrogating witnesses, the foibles of memory, and questioning of their own assumptions when confronted with eyewitness accounts, will also diffuse into multimedia history. The investigators at the STIM sites have clearly concentrated on the technical difficulties associated with contributions from `historical subjects', but have regrettably, not explicitly addressed these other historiographic issues.
The STIM project is based on the premise that collaborative engagement with the communities responsible for making a particular technology will transform historical practice. The multiplicity of perspectives will act as an antidote to narrow and inflexible interpretations of the history of technology and foster new forms of historical narrative.
Here therefore is a project designed to explore the effect of new technology on the process of creating history. It deserves to be evaluated as a piece of interactive multimedia, as a series of historical case-studies and perhaps, most important, for the value it might add to more traditional print-mediated work.
STIM's five web sites are produced at five of America's most distinguished universities: Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, (UC Berkeley)and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The project is coordinated at Stanford; the University's library provides editoral and technical support. For the sake of continuity and longevity it resides in the Stanford library. At the launch of the project in early 1997, a workshop was held at Stanford for the primary investigators to discuss shared problems and to develop a common strategy. A concluding workshop was scheduled for October 1998, to be followed by a summary report in early 1999.
General guidelines were established to lend some cohesion to the STIM project. The sites were to function as databases for scholars and as testing grounds to discover whether a wider public exists for these resources. Each was to include primary source materials (documentary and archival) `sufficiently rich to initiate new research.' as well as links to secondary literature for guiding researchers or other interested parties to current work in the history of science and technology.
Specific decisions about the intellectual content, storage, and presentation of data on a particular site were left to the discretion of each researcher. Lead investigators were to determine which were the significant historical resources to include in separate databases. The emphasis in the web site design was on flexibility: topics could develop `in response to discussions' and openess to a variety of approaches was encouraged. They were urged to use new sources and to entice a broad-range of participants, while remaining cognizant of existing information networks.
STIM uses MediaWeaver, a Web-accessible database, created by Stanford Academic Software Development. This adaptable system manages `arbitrary forms of media' and `keeps track of associations of multimedia objects including images, computer programs, structured text, audio and video recordings, distributed across a heterogeneous network of computers.'
The Blackout History Project is a web site designed by James T. Sparrow of Brown University, Rhode Island where Ted Nelson coiner of such terms as "hypertext" worked in the mid-1960s (Hall, Davis and Hutchings, 1996). It concerns two major power failures which hit the New York City metropolitan region in 1965 and 1977. The focus is on the causes and consequences of a massive failure of large technological systems.
This site is conceived as an experimental research tool for investigating the social, psychological, political, and economic effects of the blackouts. The technological failure is seen within the broader context of business history and public policy. Sparrow also raises interesting issues about historical method. It is one of Sparrow's objectives to spark an online discussion about the use of the Web for researching and writing history. While acknowledging the utility of traditional sources, such as company records, published accounts, and newspapers, he questions the `epistemological biases' of historians `whose sense of significance and causation guide the selection of evidence'. Sparrow is convinced that a Web-based approach, emphasizing interactive data gathering, online discussions, multiple-author collaboration `and the interpretive sensitivity of oral history, can correct for that bias.' This is clearly historiographically naive. Far from being a panacea, it may introduce other problems of analysis and interpretation, including issues of authenticity, credibility, and veracity (Rosenzweig 1995).
Less contentious, is his assertion that the new techniques will facilitate a deeper understanding of the multiple layers of historical action that led to the electric power failures. Sparrow is particularly keen to make contact with electricity consumers and electric utility staff and managers to develop a collective memory of the two crises.
The site's home page contains a brief, but vivid description of the blackouts and a discussion of the community responses which ranged from altruism to riots. It also features a forum for scholarly discussion, personal recollections, expert opinions, and public display of materials. To launch the site, the managers planned to conduct a few oral interviews with members of the public, government officials, and Con Edison employees. These were to be presented online in digitized audio and video form, along with news media coverage, scanned images, manuscripts and other documents. Unfortunately, this form of material has not been used; it certainly would have been a richer visitor experience if it had been included on the site. The potential audience consisted of New Yorkers who experienced the blackouts, people from the electric utilities, historians, or individuals interested in learning how to use a web site for building communities. Eventually, it was anticipated that material from the archive and forum would be the basis for essays. Another way of engaging users are the on-line surveys which, after completion, can be accessed by a full-text search.
A perusal of the Blackout History Project reveals several design flaws. The navigation is slow and often fruitless. In the `Forum' section there are a number of `electronic pigeon holes' , many of which are empty. Similar cul-de-sacs exist in the remaining sections. This site could be improved with better maintenance.
Another problem, perhaps not anticipated by the designer, is low turnout. For instance, in the discussion forum, four topics were posed; only two of these received replies, from one person each. Equally, half of the six sections under the heading, `Comments', had no replies. The remaining sections had thirteen replies in total.All the empty space devoted to non-existent facts, questions, timelines, stories, observations, interviews and other materials gives an unfavourable impression, which detracts from the positive aspects of the Site.
The `Comments' section gives some impression of the actual participants in `The Blackout History Project'. The users who identified themselves included three high school students, a Con Edison employee, a disaster recovery planner, and a reporter from Playboy magazine. Three of the visitors wrote in to complain about the poor quality of the site, especially the lack of written text in various sections. Three were seeking information about how the 1965 blackout affected the birthrate nine months later. The majority of others asked for general information about the blackouts.
On the plus side, the in-depth `Blackout Experience Survey' was completed in detail by nine respondents. The very detailed answers to queries, including many open-ended questions, were interesting. The `Archive' section did contain full bibliographic references on the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, but the other five reference categories were virtually empty. An introductory essay in the `Methods' section, exploring qualitative approaches to the humanities (oral history and ethnography), tantalizes the user with links to topics like `meanings and perspectives' and `interpretive recursion' which lead to nowhere. Despite its worthy aims, this site promises considerably more than it delivers.
Another disappointing STIM site is `Making PCR', designed by Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley. The subject of this site is PCR, which was conceived by Kary Mullis at the Cetus Corporation in 1983. It is an extremely important biotechnological invention which has revolutionized the practice of molecular biology by increasing the scale and scope of genetic manipulation. This web site has a broad historical agenda; it provides an opportunity for researchers to explore the development of university and biotechnology industry relations, conflicts over intellectual property, and the diffusion of a technology in the scientific and medical community.
The structure of `Making PCR' is similar to that of the other sites. It contains an archive with key PCR documents (including scientific articles and papers, technical reports, interviews with research scientists and technicians and patent data). These primary sources, used as a foundation of the site were initially gathered by Rabinow for his ethnographic study, published as a book, Making PCR (Rabinow 1996) . He forsees the use of this resource by scholars and students to trace the history and diffusion of PCR.
This site also has a forum devised for the inventors of PCR to contribute their own observations and comments about the technology, with a view to document the growth of PCR technology. To stimulate discussion, Rabinow regularly posts `provocative statements'. He is also interested in keeping a current register of legal battles over PCR and hopes to recruit users to participate in discussions about patents and ownership. A log is kept of all comments in the forum so earlier submissions are accessible to participants.
To increase the profile of the site, it was submitted and subsequently reviewed in several scientific journals. Rabinow also had personal contacts with many members of the community, whom he had interviewed for his book. He wished to recruit, in addition to scientists, technicians, lawyers, journalists, the larger community involved with PCR.
"Making PCR' succeeds as an electronic annotated bibliography. The `Foundational Papers' are well-organized according to specific topics and may be viewed on screen and printed out. The hand of project team member Suzanne Calpestri, head of the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library at Berkeley , is evident here. But it is less effective as an interactive forum. The site does not appear to be engaging a substantial committed audience. Out of the three `provocative statements' posted, one received three replies (1998/99), another received two replies (1999), and the final received five replies (1998). Some of these message threads have become `cold spots'. `Making PCR' is inactive and uninspired; those intrigued with PCR would probably find a dip into Rabinow's book a more rewarding experience.
"The Big Dig' is a well-designed, user-friendly web site based at MIT. The primary investigators are two historians of technology, Thomas P. Hughes and Sara Wermiel. It focuses on the history of Scheme Z, a plan for bridges that were to carry a new highway across the Charles River in Boston. Following widespread public opposition, which commenced in 1989, state officials produced a new design using tunnels, to replace the original plan. This exceptionally large, complex, and expensive civil engineering project, known as the Boston Central Artery Tunnel (CA/T) raises problems about technology, funding, ethnic and local politics, public participation in design processes, aesthetic, and environmental considerations.
From the history of technology standpoint, Hughes and Wermiel see the CA/T project as an archetype of a modern large distributed system with a substantial number of subsystems. As a case study, it provides an opportunity to explore the multi-disciplinary issues confronting engineering project managers and the skills required to achieve their aims in the late twentieth century.
The investigators also wish to test the Web-environment as a data gathering instrument. They hope to rescue from oblivion material that might have been overlooked by researchers, such as unofficial records and individual memories of participants. Furthermore, they wish to exploit the interactive possibilities of the Web to obtain feedback on a chapter from Hughes' book Rescuing Prometheus which deals with the CA/T project and Scheme Z. The chapter, `Coping with Complexity', is reproduced on the site (Hughes 1998).
In common with the other STIM sites, `The Big Dig' encompasses an online archive and forum for visitor contributions. To initiate the archive many documents were compiled from the project's engineers, architects, designers, and construction subcontractors. Much of the material came from public records, such as environmental impact hearings. The investigators planned to solicit further information from public interest and environmental organizations. Another source of data were interviews with engineers involved with CA/T. These were summarized, transcribed, and digitized.
The completed web site makes intelligent use of these varied sources. It is divided into three useful categories: a `Scheme Z chronology' of events; `CA/T documents' , a chronological bibliograpy of key publications with online excerpts; and `Plans & pictures', which contains images).
The investigators envisaged a multi-layered archive relecting the different types of issues raised by the project. From the beginning, they wished to create a participatory archive which would thoroughly involve the `historical subjects' in the creation of this resource. In the actual site, they encouraged users to annotate the archival sources and to submit their own materials (drawings, photographs, histories, and correspondence). These interactive responses, corrections, or ratifications were welcomed as an important addition to the archive.
At the end of the project, in the Spring of 1999, the `Big Dig' closed down. All electronic and paper contributions are preserved as an archive for future researchers.
By comparison with the frustration some of the other sites in the STIM project engender, this ephemeral web site turned archive is a joy to navigate. Its straightforward design includes a clear table of contents with good links. Instructions are easy to follow and not intrusive. There are thoughtful touches-- such as a warning that a particular file would load slowly or advice about which file version of a chapter would be most suitable for print. By anticipating problems, the designers have made a visit to the site a pleasure rather than a pain.
Access to the archive is straightforward via the two chronologies, where users click on dates to arrive at key events or bibliographic material. The descriptive text in the `CA/T Documents' section contained, for instance, the highlighted phrase, `one cable-stay bridge' , which when clicked linked to a relevant image from the `Plans and Pictures' section. The latter could also be consulted directly and are of excellent quality. The `Contribute' section had a form to fill. In the `View the Archive' section a listing of hard copy materials and on-line contributions are available and clickable. Very detailed information from participants is thus easily accessible. Finally, from the `Links' section users may visit other relevant web sites.
The `Big Dig' had received 2343 hits in the year from March 1998 until my first visit in March 1999. In the three subsequent months it received approximately 500 further hits. Since the site is deeply embedded, it is unlikely that these were accidental. Comparable figures are not advertised for the four other STIM sites, but it gives the impression of having a relatively large amount of traffic. The quality of the contributions is impressive and there is a sense that a real dialogue is occurring; there was a genuine response to Hughes' book chapter and he acknowledged this online.
This web site is a lively and fun site dedicated to the history of electric vehicles (EVs). The primary investigator behind `Electric Vehicle History Online' is Professor David Kirsch, a historian at UCLA. His aim is to preserve the recent history of EVs by engaging enthusiasts in the process of building an online archive.
Kirsch is interested in attempts to reintroduce EVs into the American car market over the past thirty years. He related this to moves to replace the internal combustion engine because of environmental and energy concerns expressed by private individuals and groups as well as government. Until General Motors' entrance into the market in 1996, only a few small companies and individuals built electric vehicles. A maximum of approximately 25,000 privately-owned EVs are driven in the US today.
According to Kirsch, data gathered from early users of this important alternative technology, could be used to advance research in the area of technological choice. Even if this proved to be an archive of a technological failure, it would still be a valuable resource for historians, since such episodes often remain obscure. In addition, a wider public interested in history of technology, could use `EV Online' to learn about `an emerging technology'.
The home page is written in an upbeat tone. Here is an extract from the `Contribute!' section which is encouraging users to send in comments: `If you own and/or drive an electric vehicle, you already know that you are ahead of the pack. What you may not yet know is that you are literally making history, and we want to make sure that decades from now, you experiences have not been forgotten.' EV is described here as an `emerging technology', there is no talk about `technological failure' which is buried in the Sloan proposal and the STIM web site. The investigators, perhaps wisely, do not want to put a damper on the whole enterprise.
At the heart of `EV online' is a quantative and qualitative survey to discover more about vehicle usage patterns, operating data, personal perspective, etc. Another interactive feature is the documentation section which contains battery evaluation reports and personal chronicles. The `Forum' section attracted a dozen substantial contributions in 1998. This number, although small compared to `hit' rates, is high for the STIM sites and the effort put into them was considerable. These features and their positive comments suggest that the project could be considered `successful'.
One reason for the success of this web site was the fact that the target audience was well-defined and manageable. It was possible to actually make contact with a substantial number of EV drivers, owners, manufacturers (builders and component industry) and researchers. This contrasts with the myriad of potential participants for the `Blackout History Project' which yielded so little.
The `EV online' recruitment strategy was also effective. The project team actively sought participants in electrical vehicle organizations, transportation research institutes, and historical societies. This had a cascading effect, as publicity spread through these organizations's own web sites, conferences, and membership lists. They were also fortunate that the EV community was fairly `Webwise'. In addition to visits to the virtual world, the investigators actually went to electric car club meetings and made presentations about the project. They hoped to entice veteran users and novices through this high profile campaign.
This is a practical web site with a useful menu and clear instructions; at the same time, it is entertaining and visually interesting without being superficial. There are many layers to explore: `Archive', `History of Recent EVs', `History of Early EVs', `What's New', `Forum', `FAQs & Information'. Under the heading `Archive' are four subsections. Under `Drivers Tell All' visitors can access users' performance data, stories, chronicles, etc. While, in `The History of the Future', in a uniquely playful manner for a STIM web site, users may look at amusing quotations or engage in a game. `Gatherings' lists information about conferences, races, rallies, and requests for photos, clippings, reminisences, and other memorabilia. `Historical Photos' includes pictures of EVs for every decade since the 1950s with descriptions and a call for better photos. On a more academic note, users can go to `History of Early EVs' to read classic historical articles, a dissertation abstract, or proceedings from a Society for the History of Technology panel on the subject.
This varied site manages to attract a lot of contributions from electric vehicle aficionados and should also prove useful to scholars.
The `MouseSite' resides at Stanford University and was designed by Timothy Lenoir, historian of technology and originator of the entire STIM project. This sophisticated web site is devoted to the history of human-computer interaction (HCI) and the renowned work of Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse. It is a biography of an individual, a collective biography of a community, an institutional and intellectual history of HCI, a history of technology, and an interactive online resource bundled into one.
It opens with a condensed, yet intriguing, biography of Engelbart as radar technician during the Second World War, as a graduate student in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley in the post-war period, followed by work at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). His work at SRI culminated in the 1968 `public multimedia demonstration of a networked computer system. This was the world debut of the computer mouse, 2-dimensional display editing, hypermedia--including in-file object addressing and linking, multiple windows with flexible view control, and on-screen video teleconferencing.'
This is followed by a brief explanation of the aim of the site. One objective of the `MouseSite' is to create an archive which combines Engelbart's papers and ideas with the community memory of his colleagues. Another is to attract a wider audience to the history of technology. The computer mouse is considered to be an ideal focal point because it is, by now, an easily recognized common object with a fascinating history. Both the study of the Engelbart group and the mouse would, according to the researchers, illuminate crucial issues about modern technology and innovation. Matters such as standardization, instrument design, the process of invention of computer devices and systems, and the origins of the field of human-computer interactions would all be enriched by the project.
To recruit participants for the web site, the investigators contacted alumni of the Augmentation Research Center at SRI, and planned a reunion of the Engelbart group to encourage them to contribute. In addition, they communicated with members of research teams from centres like Xerox PARC, where many of Engelbart's colleagues moved after budget cuts in the 1970s. Links were also established with other institutions devoted to computer history, including the Babbage Institute, in Minnesota, the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. and the Computer Museum in Boston. Educators at other academic institutions and educational committees of the Society for the History of Technology, History of Science Society, and 4S (Social Studies of Science Society) were also advised about the instructional potential of the MouseSite.
Starting from five general headings the MouseSite unfolds like an accordion in different dimensions. In the interactive `Forum' the investigators seek materials to extend their archives. Information is sought about persons, devices, culture, and the wider social and historical context. The `Persons' subsection, was designed to collect biographical data and follow the `career trajectories' of people associated with Engelbart. It lists the names of about fifty people important in the history of HCI. The few highlighted names will display biographies when clicked. Users are requested to fill in details about the others or add names to the list or add documents. They are also shown a photograph of a group of Engelbart's colleagues and asked to identify each person. Judging from the `Log of Comments', this raised considerable interest. Seventeen messages were sent in 1998 and one in May 1999. There were even `conversations' between some of the correspondents.
Narratives about the development of various software and hardware components (e.g. mouse, keyboards, graphical displays, light pens, windowing, hypertext) forms the core of the `Devices' subsection. The current forum question concerns the advantages and uses of the chord key set. This has been a popular topic with ten responses in 1998 and eighteen messages by May 1999.
Collecting stories about HCI experiments forms part of the `Culture' subsection. An excellent image of the SRI's Augmentation Research Center team's `communication pit', an open-plan office, designed to improve collaborative work, is displayed here. Participants are asked to comment on the experiment. A total of six people have replied.
The wider historical and social context is explored under the `Context' heading. Here the researchers wish to focus on the relationship between the technology and other events and projects. For example, they mention Project Mac at MIT. The current question asks why the collaborative networking tools demonstrated by Engelbart and his group in 1968 took so long to take-off. There are six replies, including an electronic slide presentation.
The other primary division of the site is the `Archive' It is a very complete multimedia resource, including excellent images. Many of Engelbart's papers held in the Stanford Library have been digitized and are easily accessed with an online finding aid. An electronic annotated table of contents may be used to locate materials in the traditional paper archive. Streaming video clips of the famous 1968 mouse demonstration are also available and are easy to load. In addition, details of a symposium, a bibliography of secondary literature, interviews with Engelbart, and links with related web sites are also available.
The navigation through this site is very smooth; it is easy to remain oriented in spite of the great breadth and depth of the MouseSite. For example, if a visitor goes to `Search' he or she may browse the web site via a list of keywords or sort through the table of contents by date, author, or title.
The MouseSite is a historiographic and multimedia triumph. It sets a high standard for aspiring multimedia historians. Furthermore, it has spawned another extraordinary experiment, `The Mouse that Roared', a networked learning environment on the history of Silicon Valley.
STIM suggests the great potential of the Web-environment for gathering primary historical material and making it widely available to scholars and the public. It works especially well for contemporary historians who wish to interact with living `historical actors'. Apart from resorting to online seances, historians of the distant past will have to find other means to tap this powerful resource. Many already partcipate in history bulletin boards or networks like HNet, and some share and discuss historical evidence with colleagues on the Web. Perhaps new and interesting interpretations will arise through interactive online discussions with people from other disciplines.
Specialization in esoteric fields is a problem for all historians . Periodic academic meetings of scattered individuals may be supplemented by email, web sites, and virtual conferences. But, unless a subject is quite popular and there is a critical mass of active participants, it is unlikely that an interactive site on the STIM model would succeed. Despite the efforts made by the STIM contributors, and the interest of each topic to many outside the historical community, typically only a dozen responses were obtained to a web site.
At the core of the majority of STIM web sites are traditional paper-based secondary sources. The springboard for `The Big Dig' was Hughes' chapter from a book, for `Making PCR' it was Rabinow's book, and for `EVOnline', it was Kirsch's PhD. dissertation. This raises the question whether it would be possible to commence online research at an earlier stage. What would happen if the multimedia historian started from scratch? Would they have to frame questions in a new way ?
The STIM experiment is still inconclusive with regard to historical narrative. So far, the products of these interactive history projects have not become available, so it is impossible to assess whether the new tools and approach has had a radical effect or not.
This project has demonstrated the value of building a network of historical web sites. As a superstructure, it has succeeded in consolidating the diverse web sites in two respects. First, the thematic approach, emphasizing modern history of technology, has created some coherence in the subject matter. Secondly, it has created methodological coherence, by focusing on testing the Web as an interactive tool for collecting, storing, discussing, and broadcasting information.
At the same time, STIM has remained flexible enough for individual investigators to pursue their specific topics and agendas. Each was required to tailor his or her site to the particular problems raised by quite diverse subject matter and audiences. The versatility of the medium is evident in the varied nature of these history of technology sites. The best sites made good use of the Internet for interactive discourse and multi-author collaboration, while attaining excellent standards of information presentation and navigation.
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