The Culture Cast

Robert Morais ‘The Value of Business Anthropology’

John Carter
December 16, 2019
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The Culture Cast
December 16, 2019

Robert Morais ‘The Value of Business Anthropology’

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Episode Transcript

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John: Hi, and welcome to the Decoding Culture Podcast on This is HCD. The podcast focuses on the importance that culture plays in all areas of business and society, form how it shapes organisations to how it influences consumer experience, design, and larger societal trends. My name is John Curran and I’m your host. I’m a business anthropologist, executive coach, and CEO of JC and Associates, which is a consultancy that explores how culture shaped organisations and consumer behaviour. For this episode, I want to start with a question, why are companies and brands turning to business anthropology to understand their consumers and organisations? To answer this and to discuss the value of business anthropology in general, I spoke with Bob Morais, a business anthropologist and adjunct professor at Columbia Business School in New York.

Bob has written five books and his articles have appeared in numerous media outlets, such as the Huffington Post and Forbes, just to name a few. We explore how both ethnography and culture are the two main pillars that frame business anthropology and it’s how anthropologists used these to help companies reframe tough business questions that is really key. As part of this, Bob importantly described how ethnography must not be seen as simply a research tool, but crucially a way of thinking that combines both research techniques with theory from the social sciences.

Critically, he makes the point that business anthropology goes beyond ethnography. It is a profession where companies get value through being able to see people and also culture from a 360-degree point of view. Therefore, business anthropologist challenge conventional thinking in order to expose new opportunities for business. Let’s get into the conversation. Hi, Bob, and welcome to Decoding Culture Podcast.

Robert: Thank you for having me.

John: That’s great. How is it in New York at the moment?

Robert: It’s just fine, it’s overcast. It’s a little cold, but it’s fine. Are you in London?

John: I am in London. I’m in South London, so an area called Crystal Palace, so it’s about a 20-mintue train journey into the centre, but you’ve just described London. Overcast and a bit cold. We are literally across the pond.

Robert: Okay, that’s great.

John: Bob, listen, I want to kick off with just a very general question, a bit about you really, and how did you get into being a business anthropologist?

Robert: Well, my case and the case of a lot of people I’ll say of a certain vintage who are working in business anthropology or have worked in business anthropology is that we came to it in as many ways as there are a number of us. In other words, everybody has a different story. Most of us who’ve been doing this for a while actually didn’t get trained in business anthropology, we’re trained in traditional anthropology. I received my PhD in 1980 and I did my field world in the rural Philippines. It was on friendship and kindship and a number of different dietic relationships. Then I connected that with broader social networks. Then I thought about teaching, I actually did some teaching.

I wasn’t happy with the academic job market and I found out about a program at NYU, New York University’s business school, that essentially refitted people with social science and humanities PhDs to enable us to enter business. It was a summer program; it was about two months’ long. I took that in 1981 and then I got a job at Grey Advertising in account management working on Jiff Peanut Butter. Worked in the 80s in account management and then started noticing articles. There was someone named Steve Barnett who wrote some articles on applying anthropology in advertising. I was intrigued by it, but I had a good job, I didn’t want to change that job. Then I started getting a little bit more interested in it, because I saw a few more articles appearing, of Margaret Meath’s in marketing and so on.

I started collecting them. Then I was introduced to a few people, one way or another, and I started applying a little bit of it on the job, then let’s say around 1989/1990, I did my first ethnography with Pine Salt. Then I did some work with WD40 using ethnography and did more and more of it. My career changed from, I moved from account management into account planning, which is the strategic focus in advertising. That was in the 90s and really focused more on bringing anthropology in, but still not – it wasn’t 100 percent of my job. Then in 2006, some friends and some people I’d known for a long time in marketing research invited me to essentially succeed one of their principles and I joined that firm as a partner and did that for 11 years.

Then I was much more explicitly and emphatically a business anthropologist, although, we also did quantitative research and a number of other things. My path has been on the applied side first academic, then business, then back to business anthropology and the other part of it is, that starting in the early to mid-2000s, I started engaging in business anthropology scholarships, so I wrote some articles and some books.

John: Bob, that’s really interesting because I think it’s very similar to my background, as well, becoming a business anthropologist. I was doing a PhD, I studied at LSC, went to Goldsmiths, was writing up my PhD and then a good 18 years ago, I got contacted to go and understand mobile technology out of nowhere. It almost feels like we’ve made our own pathways into this world of business anthropology, does that sound right?

Robert: I think that’s exactly right. I think it actually benefits us because not only do we think as anthropologists, but we think along the lines of whatever other thing or things we did along the way.

John: Yes, would it be a fair question to say: Can we define, or can you define business anthropology? Do you think it’s got a clear definition there?

Robert: Well, I can define it, whether or not it’s clear or at least everyone can agree on it is another question. The way I would define it and I think some people would agree with this, at least in the United States because I think there are some differences around the globe. Very broadly, it’s the application of anthropological methods and theories to problems and opportunities in industry, but we need to get a little more specific than that. If you think about where it’s applied and the kinds of industries it’s applied. One would be marketing, marketing research, advertising, things surrounding consumer behaviour and the messages that go to consumers about brands. Related to that would be experience that users have with brands, so user experience or UX studies.

There’s a lot of interest in design as it relates to new product development and product improvement. There’s another area that focuses on organisational culture, so that’s a whole other field and sometimes that can connect with an understanding of marketing because if you’re working in marketing anthropology, you need to understand your clients’ culture, for example. Then there are companies that use anthropologists for intercultural management. Then there are anthropologists who work in what might be broadly defined as business anthropology who are focused on sustainability, or crisis management, or work in banking, or technology.

John: It’s really interesting, you’ve almost created a picture there of many different areas of business life, almost like business culture, where business anthropology can really exist or really sit. I think one of the traditional images was that marketing research or maybe design and innovation, but you’ve created a much more broad picture there.

Robert: Yes, I think business anthropology is very broad, but what happens is that practitioners tend to focus on one or two areas, so if you work for business anthropologists, you’re working at Google and Microsoft and Facebook and they work for Procter and Gamble and Campbells Soup and General Motors. There are some that focus, I know someone was of [inaudible 00:08:30] who worked for almost 25 years at General Motors looking at organisational culture and culture change. The work that I’ve done has focused more in the consumer area, a lot of packaged goods, luxury hotels, some other areas. Then there are people that focus on user experience, and I know for example, user experience people that work at Air B&B and at Dropbox and so on.

John: If we think about then as you describe where it potentially can exist, what’s the value it brings? What value does business anthropology bring to actually business itself?

Robert: Well, the thing that most people think about first is ethnography. I always say that anthropologists don’t have much. We have ethnography and we have culture. Those are our two big guns. One part of what we do, we do ethnography and a lot of people do ethnography, but the way that we do ethnography if we’re trained in anthropology is a bit different from people who may have just read about it, or may have learned about it in a different field. For example, we not only listen and observe, but we often connect ethnography with anthropological theory and I always think that the theory in a way turbocharges the findings, so that you can move to more powerful insights.

One contribution is just the pure methodology, but then as anthropologists, we bring something more, which would be the theory and then I would talk about and think about culture as being beliefs, ideas, values, rules, all of those kinds of things that we associate with culture and connecting those to brand experiences, our concept of wholeism and looking at people’s lives in a 360 way. Another good example would be the way we think about, for example, in dealing with clients, their point of view versus the customer’s point of view. ENIC as the customer’s point of view, and EDIC as the marketing manager’s point of view. I’m speaking now from very much a marketing anthropologist perspective, but those are the kinds of values we add value.

Of course, Elizabeth Brida who worked for General Motors did a lot of work on organisational culture to try to improve relations among different groups at General Motors. Her work had clear value there, they kept her on for as long as they did. There are a lot of anthropologists who were, and I know you do too, who do organisational culture work, and add enormous value to organisations working better, anthropologists add to consumer’s shopping experiences. I did a project for Ela’s Kitchen. It’s a baby food and we looked at how mom’s experience shopping for baby foods and one of the things we learned is they were looking at packaging is how important it was to see the product as it appeared in transparent packaging, which their company at the time did not offer. There’s a lot of value that we add in a lot of different ways.

John: You’ve touched on so much there. I think one thing, I came across your book that you wrote with Timothy Melefyt about advertising and anthropology ethnographic practice and culture perspectives. I think it’s chapter eight you talk about business anthropology beyond ethnography. I think what you’ve been talking there, you’re touching on that about how it’s not just this thing of doing, or it’s not just the methodology and approach, it’s a way of thinking, as well, with theory. I guess that’s one of the critiques about ethnography, how it exists outside of academia. It gets watered down to just observation, maybe. I guess what I’m thinking about here is when we’re thinking about anthropological theory, what types of theories sit with you when you’re within this world of the business anthropologist or business anthropology?

Robert: Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples. I can talk about some work that I’ve done and maybe about some work some other people have done, too. I was working on a project for Honey Bunches of Oats, which is a breakfast cereal. We were doing focus groups, and this speaks to anthropology beyond ethnography. Some of what I’ll talk about will be ethnographic, but some of it will not be. In this case, Honey Bunches of Oats, we were doing focus groups. One of our moderators form our company was doing interviews with people. We had them talk about their breakfast experience and we had them taste the cereal in the focus group environment. As I’m listening to them, I’m thinking about rites of passage.

I’m thinking about the movement from essentially a sleep state, waking up, maybe you’re sleeping with a partner, maybe not, but you’re moving from there into another state or another phase, think of it as the middle or the liminal phase, where you’re having a meal, what is that meal doing to transform you and transition you to the third phase? Which would be to enter the society that you were in the day before, whether or not you’ve gone outside, but presumably a lot of people do go outside. When I broke that down and then as anthropologists very often do analytically, we slow things down, I really wanted to focus in on that liminal phase, that middle phase because it’s so important, so people were separating themselves. They were then moving into this next phase, then, of course, they re-entered.

Those are the three phases that Anne and Janet came up with about over 100 years ago. I was really interested in what happened during the liminal period when people were eating the cereal and how it might be transforming them and what one of the things I was listening for was how they talked about the sensate properties of the cereal in terms of its sweetness and crunch and how it made them feel very optimistic and very happy. It wasn’t just their caffeine; it was just the overall experience. Really honing in on that and in a way, slowing it down for myself and my clients, helped us generate some new ideas about how to speak about Honey Bunches of Oats.

John: Okay, that’s such a powerful description of the story you’ve just told there because it really succinctly brings together this, or not even brings together, but defines ethnography. That it isn’t just this standalone observation tool, but you’re there using liminality, Victor Turner, all of these types of anthropological theories coming into play, which then creates the richness. I love this image that you’ve created about slowing down. I guess that’s something within the business world even you can’t even think about, but actually, it’s essentially then to understand the 360-person as you’ve mentioned earlier. I’m just imaging being the client there and you’re both collaborating on this project, but you’re talking to the client about liminality, about these anthropological theories. How does that sit with the client? Do they see us as raving hippies or yes, how does that create value to the client? Those types of theories.

Robert: Well, I remember this project very well. This was the first project that we had, my company had done. This was the [inaudible 00:15:17] for post foods. The client that hired us was an expansive creative thinker. My business partner, Cynthia Wineman, is a psychologist, I’m an anthropologist. Then we had someone else from our company do the actual focus group interviews. We did several days of focus groups. The client was very interested in our analysis of what we were hearing. When we presented to her team and I talked about these rites of passage, I may have called them rites of passage. I used the term liminality but only when I looked at her. I did not mention in the meeting Van Janep or Victor Turner, but I certainly was informed by them.

In fact, as you mentioned with Victor Turner, I was particularly informed by his ideas about liminality because it’s a time in a way to play a little bit and mix things up a little bit. We had opportunities to look at that breakfast as a time when you can be a little creative in what you’re having. That was valuable to us. I didn’t press it too hard. It depends on the client. There are some clients where I will bring in, I would be very explicit about brining in theory, whereas, with other clients, I tread lightly. You have to remember that if they’re hiring me or another anthropologist in business, they want to get what they’re paying for. They don’t want us just to come in as market researchers, they want us to come in as anthropological market researchers.

John: I was almost thinking about that kind of question there and you’ve just answered it about it’s actually they’re hiring a business anthropologist, not a market researcher. How do you approach? You mentioned right at the beginning there about we have ethnography and we’ve got culture. The podcast itself, Decoding Culture, right, culture is this complex ecosystem. How do you work with the notion of culture with your clients as a business anthropologist?

Robert: Well, what I’ll do is, I’ll talk about values and I may talk about how the consumer makes meaning about what’s important to them. I was doing a baking study for Dunken Heinz. They make these boxed mixes for brownies and cakes and so on. We were very interested in how people defined baking versus cooking, for example, and there are cultural attendants to that. That is, what’s important in baking? What’s important in cooking? What’s important in cooking is to feed the family and sustain the family. What’s important in baking is to have fun. Sometimes to involve children. One of the things that I thought that popped into my mind and this connects to what we were talking about before, is a theory that I don’t think is all that well-known now, but a professor of mine when I was in graduate school invented it, but it was called the conflict enculturation theory of model involvement.

John: Wow.

Robert: I love the sound of that.

John: Yes, that’s pretty cool.

Robert: His idea, this is John Roberts, John M. Roberts. He was a psychological anthropologist, which was my focus in graduate school. What he talked about is that in any given culture, it’s really hard to learn the rules. It’s hard to learn hard things. He was very interested in games, so what he did was look at games cross culturally. He was very interested in how games could model behaviour for children that they could use as adults. In a society where games of skill or certain skills were required, that there were games of skill that made it easy for children to learn those skills. You could talk about strategy; people might point to a game like Monopoly as a model of capitalism and ways of learning capitalism. When I was doing this study on baking, I was thinking that at least in the American culture that I was studying.

I was talking to the moms a little bit about this, of course, I never mentioned the conflict enculturation theory of model involvement to them. I talked to them about, and sometimes with their kids in their kitchens, talked about the value of having their kids there with them. They would say things like, well, to make kitchen a place where fun happens and to involve my children in ways where I can have conversations with them, like my teenage daughter who I can’t have conversations with otherwise, but when we’re cooking, we can really talk. Then they talked about how – they didn’t exactly put it this way – but how their children can learn the rules of baking and how you can also be creative.

You can take a boxed baking mix, but you can do things to it, make changes to it, so you can follow very strict rules because you have to follow very strict rules from a boxed mix, but then you can do things with the frosting or do things otherwise after it’s out of the oven that are creative. We talked a little bit in conversation about that, how that might help them as they grew up. That learning this way might help them learn other things. I connected that more broadly with a cultural understanding of how to teach children the values that you believe are important at least in this context in American culture about how you follow rules, but you can also deviate from certain rules. You don’t have to use the frosting they gave you. You also in life can sometimes follow the basic rules, but then you can improvise, or you can create and go to great things. That’s where I took that. The clients seem to like that idea. That was a way of combining a little bit of theory but a little bit of a broader understanding of how culture is used in terms of how we think of culture in terms of values and rules and so on.

John: That’s superb and it got me thinking there about also my experience of the ethnography almost or the anthropologist in the kitchen and this idea about culture being holistic, as well, so looking at the people, the actors, I guess, but then also the objects, the material culture, almost the symbolic meaning, or the symbolic meaning of the products of the space. Is it a gendered space? Is it a playful space? How you can then create that story of what the culture is. I often find sometimes with my clients, it’s often doing that, being able to map out the culture, that then you see the innovation opportunities that sit with it, as well.

Robert: That’s right.

John: Also, something quickly going back to this idea or one of our key identities around ethnography, something again I picked up in your book around being reflective and reflectivity about that being a cool thing about being the anthropologist and also the business anthropologist doing ethnography. I’m wanting to just explore that a little bit, that importance about being able to check yourself as well within that space.

Robert: Yes, well, there are some anthropologists in the academy that don’t even think anthropologists should be applying our tools in the business world.

John: Of course, I’ve heard that.

Robert: That we shouldn’t be using it to make money. There are ethnical issues that surround it. We have a chapter in that book on ethics and Timothy and I also edited another book on ethics in business anthropology because it’s such a tremendous issue. In that book, it had some really interesting articles on the dilemmas that people face and how they get around them and how they think about themselves and how they evaluate taking on certain projects and maybe rejecting others. When you’re in the field, your mind is focused on the research, the truth is, the kind of research that I’ve done as a business anthropologist, it’s obviously much shorter. I was in the field for almost a year and a half. It was a whole different experience obviously.

I was doing applied work in the end, there’s a deliverable. That deliverable has to somehow be valued by the client as a return on their investment. They’ve spent a lot of money for the work that I do, and they have to feel they got their money’s worth. I have to deliver that. I’m conscious of that, I try to only, in my career, I tried only to work on projects that I thought were worthy and so, there are certain kinds of things that I would not work on. My position in the field and my role and my identity in the field as a research, not that different from one area to another. I do think about it, on the other hand, you know from being an anthropologist, when you’re in the field, you’re focused on the people that you’re focusing on. That should be your main. You can think about your role later, and I have from time to time done that, but I’ve worked on behalf of clients and the job at hand. Then later on, I could think about, for example, the ethics of it or the appropriateness of certain kinds of enquiry. I’m probing into these people’s lives. What business do I have doing that? Especially in the interest of business? Those are considerations.

John: That’s really interesting. Let’s think about next five years’ time, where do you see business anthropology developing in the future?

Robert: I think a couple of different areas and you’d think in looking at them that one would preclude the other. On one hand because of technology and big data overall, but also just technology as different technology brands. There are a lot of anthropologists that are getting involved in technology, so EPIC, the ethnographic – actually, it’s now, the C now doesn’t stand for conference, it stands for community, which was a good idea because they’re not just about a community, they have articles and they have all kinds of things, seminars during the year. It’s a great organisation. They’re very tech focused. I think if you want to see the near-term future of anthropology in business, or at least in industry, you can look to what they’re doing there.

I don’t think that’s the only place. I think that one of the things I see anthropologists doing with technology is to add context and depth, thickness, if you will, as Trisha Wang says, to big data, and meaning to quantitative data. Getting more involved with what we can do to help quantitative people think better. One of the courses that I teach at Columbia Business School is a course that combines qualitative and quantitative marketing research. My colleague who’s a quant-oriented person, his training is really in statistics. Throughout the course, we talk about how one can inform the other, so we talk about how anthropological methods and more broadly, qualitative methods, but anthropology is in there, how that can inform, for example, segmentation analysis.

There’s a lot that we can do to help build hypothesis, ask questions in quantitative and so on. I think we will continue to do that. I think anthropology also in the future will be what it’s been in the past and what it is in the present, in terms of just gaining deeper understandings for companies that have tried everything else. As one article said, why companies are desperate to hire anthropologists? I think companies often come to anthropologists as a last resort.

John: Yes.

Robert: They’re still going to have last resorts. They’ve tried everything else. They’ve run all of the surveys, they’ve looked at all of the data, they’ve done text analysis. We’ll be there to ask the questions that they haven’t yet asked and some of that is that kind of purposeful nativity where we step back with a beginner’s mind and ask the questions that they haven’t asked, as Rita, Danny, and Patty Sunderland say, what is coffee? What is a floor? What are these things in their most fundamental sense? We need to do that. I think they’ll always be a need to do that.

John: Actually, on that point, it’s really good because I’m also seeing that trend where HR human resources in companies are coming for the anthropologists, are not necessarily desperation, but more around: We need something else. Actually, what I do a lot of work on, as well, is if they’re wanting to embed a customer-centric culture or an innovative culture, it’s looking at how teams actually work at the moment, trying to embrace one element of culture, which is conflict and how you work with that? The positivity of being able to work with conflict rather than it being a danger. That can unlock a lot of the siloed mentalities about how teams as microcultures can communicate with each other. I really think, yes, I can see that. Also, though, you’re one of the figureheads there with the business anthropology summit. I know for 2019, the summit was held in New York. 2020, it’s going to be in Berlin in Europe. Can you just give me a little bit of an overview about the business anthropology summit?

Robert: There was the first business anthropology summit in Detroit, that was conceived by Allen Bateau who teaches at Wayne State University. There were about 75 people there. It was just a beginning. Some people thought it was going to be a one-off. One summit, that’s it, we’re done. Timothy Melefyt and I, we have collaborated a number of ways and we got together, and we said, there should be another one. Let’s do it in New York, no offence to Detroit, but we thought more people might come to New York than would come to Detroit. Also, we just thought that we could expand it in terms of the inclusion of people that may not have known about the first summit. We had 160 people. If you go to, there is a tab for summits. It lists the summits and 2019 and 2020 coming up. Actually, the proceedings of the 2019 summit that Timothy and I wrote will be, and the including writings from all the people that did panels and workshops, is being published in the journal of business anthropology any day now.

John: Okay, great.

Robert: But it’s also available there, but essentially, it covered all of those major fields of business anthropology that I mentioned. We decided that it would not be a typical academic conference, but we had four panels, you can see what those are if you look at the proceedings. Then we had 11 workshops, covering everything from questions about the future of business anthropology to how it might connect to behavioural economics, to how anthropologists work in user experience and design. Even we touched on HR as you mentioned. There were a number of other areas. Even about branding business anthropology to further it in the world. It was really exhilarating and satisfaction survey that we did after indicated that people really liked it. The next one will be in Berlin. We’ll be drawing on a somewhat different group, but I’ll be sure to be there, John, I hope you will be too.

John: I’ve already got the date in the diary, which, yes, I’ll definitely be coming to that. We’ll put the links also to the business summit website, to the books that we’ve mentioned, as well, so the listeners can get at it. Listen, my final question, this is a question I’m asking every guest on Decoding Culture is, I’m going to hand you over now the symbolic anthropologists’ notebook, where would you like to take it for a year to research and why?

Robert: Okay, that’s an interesting question. One thing that’s been on my mind a lot latterly is the concept of cultural appropriation. I think about it in the context of business for a simple reason, that there are businesses that sell products that one could argue are examples, maybe glaring examples of cultural appropriation. I could really take it anywhere in the world, but because I’m in the United States, I’m going to focus here. I might take it to a market. An example would be, I actually did this in a way, but I wasn’t doing it systematically, my wife and I were visiting some friends in Philadelphia and the woman in the couple that we were with, this was an Indian festival, and they had stalls there selling items. She was at the stall with my wife and then they were looking at dresses. She saw a beautiful Indian dress that she was thinking of buying.

Then she said, “I don’t know if I should do this because this would be cultural appropriation and I feel uncomfortable about it.” I said to her, she’s an academic, so I could say things like this, well, how is that different from the diffusion of ideas and material culture from one culture to another? She said, “Well, it’s different because really appropriation can be a bad thing. It’s a kind of exploitation.” Anyway, she ended up buying but then she hasn’t worn it. This was about six months ago. What I’m very interested in is how this cultural appropriation, which some people might have thought years ago was a good thing because it was spreading cultural ideas and material culture, has now become questionable and maybe exploitative. How that ties into the way we think about the other, how we think about commerce and so on. That’s one thing. Can I have one more?

John: Go for it.

Robert: This has really been on my mind and I’m not the only one. I’m not going to reveal my politics here, but you asked the question. I’m very interested in going to parts of the United States where belief systems collide. I’d be very interested in going to areas of the country where there are supporters of Donald Trump who identify as Angelical Christians, for example, how they rationalise his behaviour with their beliefs? How they co-exist? They co-exist in their minds just fine. I’ve read quite a bit on how people talk about their support for President Trump. I’m not about to reveal my politics on this. I’m just really curious about how this works. I think it could be edifying for me, but I think it could be edifying for other people too. I’m really fascinated by it because it’s almost, I would think there would be a cognitive dissonance, but there doesn’t seem to be. Why that exists and to me, that is more than a psychological question, it’s really a cultural question.

John: Maybe we should pair up as two business anthropologists and we both do that, but then we also do the UK and Brexit?

Robert: That’s right.

John: We can then write the book, the manifesto. Listen, Bob, I’m wanted to thank you so much for taking the time, being a guest here on Decoding Culture. I’m really looking forward to Berlin next year, and just seeing and being part of this world of business anthropology and seeing it develop, but some of the stories, examples, and ideas and thinking that you’ve shared in this last half an hour are absolutely fantastic. I’ll put all of the links on there, as well, so that people will be able to follow through. Thank you so much, Bob.

Robert: Thank you very much. I really appreciate this opportunity.

John: Great, bye now.

Robert: Take care.

John: There you are. I hope that’s been interesting for you and thanks for listening to the Decoding Culture Podcast. Please do subscribe to it on iTunes and also give it a rating. If you want to learn more about other shows on This is HCD Network, feel free to visit:, where you can also sign up to the newsletter and join the Slack channel where there’s some really interesting conversations happening. Thanks for listening and see you next time.  

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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