when the subject is internet and new media, there's no sense on playing "remember when..." with BRUNO NATAL. all his answers will be "yes", followed by an "i was there" and some other irritatingly interesting tidbit about it that you were unaware of.
it's best to play "chuck norris facts" trading it for bruno natal facts. like:
in brazil, when google has a question, it asks bruno natal
when the world wide web got to brazil, it received a welcome email from bruno natal
btw: one of those is not factually true, but is factually possible.
yes, because back when the concept of deep web didn't even exist - because everything was deep web; a true digital western no man's land - bruno natal was already there, several feet under: not drowning but swimming; exploring.
"my first email was earned in the very early 1990's: email@example.com", he says nonchalantly. for people unaware of digital history, the choice of words with "earned" might sound pretentious, but it is aptly chosen, since, back then, one could not acquire an email address - they weren't commercially sold. natal got his first @ due to the fact that his mother was a medical researcher, and ALTERNEX - brazil's first ISP (internet service provider) - was owned by IBASE, the brazilian social economical analytics institute which would only bestow access to people within the scientific community. “i would only send emails to my mom, and later to a friend from school who also had it. i just thought it was cool having an email, didn’t really know why.”
the funny thing about talking with people who were there before the “there” was perceived as a space or a scene is exactly the fact that they were not aware of it as a hype-trend thing. they were just… there. while still early compared to the most of us, it took a while for natal to understand the internet. “it was only in 1994 - i spent 6 months in a foreign exchange program in california - when i first heard the word internet. i remember asking my host-family what was the meaning of it and no one could give me a clear answer. when I got back to brazil I saw a computer connected to the web, with all the hyperlinks and everything working and it all came together." later, browsing the long-defunct CDNOW.com, natal found and bought for cheap RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE’s eponymous debut album - “a cover band played “killing in the name of” at my school’s soiree and i was taken aback; that’s how good that song is” - and that’s when he first realized the internet could serve many different purposes besides from having access to university libraries from all over the world and sending e-mails to friends and family.
but all of that happened last century.
now, two decades into the new millennium, with the invention of wi-fi, wearables and the internet of things, the question bruno natal curiously asked his host-family is one that constantly gets to our minds:
what the hell is the internet now?
being called “the internet guy” doesn’t bother bruno natal - in fact he sent a picture of him using a shirt that says "internet" to illustrate this piece. but it’s a simplification of someone who’s a perfect example of a postmodern individual. in his forties, natal has put on many different hats and came a long way since being just a curious teenager browsing online for records that were difficult to find. films, marketing strategies, entrepreneurial ventures... natal has done it all when it comes to culture. he has directed the cult-classic documentary “DUB ECHOES”, which opened the doors for him to helm documentaries for some of latin america’s biggest names in the musical world (like CHICO BUARQUE, TIM MAIA, MARIA BETHANIA and OMARA PORTUONDO), TV shows like the short-lived “NÓS 3”, and even what is arguably the most important music award in brazil - the PRÊMIO MULTISHOW, which, since 2012, he serves as creative consultant.
notwithstanding, whenever he fills out paperwork, it’s “journalist” the occupation he assigns to himself. ”it’s what i majored in, and it’s an occupation i see as vital to life in society; i’m very proud of being a journalist.” - he says after pausing and switching gears; almost as if that first part was an idealistic disclaimer and what comes next is the actual meat about his story “but the truth is: what i mostly do nowadays is create digital content and digital strategy because i like this mix of creation and dissemination the digital world allows, and i can only do that well because i go at it like a journalist. i always try to process and contextualize the information i have at my hand, so no matter what i do, this journalistic way of moving is part of my creative process.”
but while journalism has always been part of it, once you hear natal talk about his creative process - using words like “thesis” instead of “ideas”, and explaining his “elimination process” instead of a more poetic “refinement of thoughts” or whatever - it gets pretty clear he also borrows a lot from his mother, a scientist researcher. moreover, it makes one think how these two fields, seemingly so distant from each other, are in reality so similar - research, a word bruno natal constantly use when discussing his work is, after all, in the lexicon of both a journalist and a scientist: “normally my ideas are provoked by something i read or find while i’m researching, so whenever i hit a wall, i just focus on consuming more content until something provokes *an* answer... but with no pressure for it to be *the* answer.” just like scientists and journalists do: innovation and scoops are both hardly planned; they are happy accidents and opportunities achieved along the way toward a barely-related path via hard-work and a dose of tenacity.
which perhaps explains QUEREMOS! - a somewhat odd point on an already remarkably “out there” trajectory. queremos!, the world’s first music concert crowd-sourcing platforms (and brazil's first crowd-funding platform as a whole) - was created by natal and a few friends during the startup craze of the early 2010’s. for over seven years, natal served as a creative director for the company, becoming a constant presence - as player and speaker - in international events like TED, TECHCRUNCH and MIT. in january 2018, he left the company’s day-to-day. “I dove headfirst into it, lived and breathed queremos! but as the years went on, i noticed i was more and more neglecting my blog, and i missed all the things that i used to do; i felt a bit monothematic”.
that’s a strange notion, right? to leave such an avant-garde company because your blog has missed your logs? but that’s because to bruno natal, his blog - URBe, now in its 16th year of existence - is much more than just a blog.
“i’ve always used it as a way to catalog my own thoughts and impressions so that i could, years later, access them. go back and reconnect with things i liked, or remember what was my point of view towards something and check if i still felt the same.” with the executive life at queremos! - which made him terminate his 5-year tenure as the TRANSCULTURA column editor at O GLOBO (one of brazil’s biggest newspapers) - natal felt the urge to become polythematic again.
in comes RESUMIDO, natal’s latest project - a weekly podcast in which he recommends and comments articles and other cultural products available on the web. “i thought a podcast would be the least painful way to get back to my cataloging stuff. that i would only hit record, speak, and publish, instead of the whole research-write-design a layout-embed media-bla-bla-bla… turns out i was wrong”, he chuckles.
although podcasts have been around a long time - “podcast” was OXFORD DICTIONARY’s “word of the year” back in 2006 - it seems natal was late to the party but arrived at the right time.
with the medium finally reaching maturity thanks to the streaming services that made it much easier for listeners to consume it, resumido has become an instant hit. sure, the exquisite cast of guests that range from pulitzer award winner GLENN GREENWALD, to planet hemp’s frontman MARCELO D2, and comedian GREGORIO DUVIVIER, always helps. but decades and decades as an attentive digital witness to internet history, and a diligent journalistic + scientific approach to cracking stories and subsiding consumers of their content with credible diverse sources, makes natal and his resumido podcast one of the best and safest companions when trying to understand what the internet has become.
which brings us back to the difficult question we threw at bruno natal: “what is the internet now?”
natal pauses, reflects and replies: “which internet are you talking about?”
if you type “what is the internet” on google, the following definition comes up:
a global computer network providing a variety of information and
communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks
using standardized communication protocols.
however, the internet has long ago diverged from this virtual place; one that people would enter (or rather “log in”) via a set of actions that would stimulate several human senses: you would sit down in front of a machine, the pupils of your eyes would contract due to the brightness of the screen, your hands would type commands on the keyboard so that the computer would execute protocols while your ears would listen to the noisy mechanical sound of the dial-up modem connecting to the world wide web. none of this is required anymore. we’ve come from having an output cable we would connect in free will to the internet whenever we felt like it, to having an input outlet which is constantly plugged by (and not into) the web. a bit like the socket on the back of everyone co-opted by “the matrix” in the eponymous classic movie from THE WACHOWSKIS. wi-fi, gps, data surveillance… the use of the internet went from active to passive. and omnipresent.
just like BRUNO TORTURRA, one of resumido’s guest, said in episode #10, “nowadays, there’s only one possible action a person can take regarding the internet, which is leaving it. if you don’t do anything, you are on it”.
instead of us going after the content, the content started coming to us. and what seemed like a more efficient use of our time, was actually a trojan horse that rendered us powerless.
to better explain his question of “which” internet we were talking about when asking “what is the internet now”, natal referred to the "walled garden" theory; a part anecdote, part analogy and part testimony in which the internet is depicted as a vast, almost infinite, piece of land that people discovered and agreed to collectively enjoy. a place where one could roam free because it was owned by nobody - or better yet; it was owned by everybody. still, it was so big if you felt like it, you could get a piece of the whole and claim it your own. a description not far from the one often associated with paradise.
then came the big corporations-oligarchies combo. once they took note of the wealth this “real estate” could produce - and (perhaps even more) once they took note of how that free space empowered people against them - they took action and started fencing a section of the land, creating a walled garden. inside of it, they were the sole operators. regulations were enforced and traffic became supervised. and that’s not even the worst part: after fencing that area and claiming as theirs, separating it from the rest of the internet, they have put up a sign saying “everything you see inside the fence is the actual internet and everything beyond is… wait, is there something beyond the fence?” and that train of thought effectively attracted people to a trap they can hardly escape now.
backing this notion are multiple research showing millions of facebook users make no distinction between the internet and facebook. they use facebook and nothing else - a large portion of them don’t even click on external links - so to their understanding, facebook is the internet.
part of the reasons behind this, is MARK ZUCKENBERG’s (facebook founder) “internet.org” - a project he unveiled in 2013 to bring internet access to undeveloped countries and less-affluent populations within developed countries. while zuck said its intentions were purely humanitarian - claiming access to the internet was a human right - empirically it proved to be yet another of the aggressive business tactics that made him one of the most powerful people in the world. by scoring deals with phone carriers to provide free access to their app - but not to the rest of the internet - they further cemented their status as the website with the biggest number of users, and together with psychological rewards like likes(!), created an addictive logic that made that fenced place have the light always on - which also made it even more difficult for people to look beyond the fence; the light is blinding.
“one thing people don’t give much credit to, is the role design had in all of this. if you enter a website like google or youtube… it has this official look. you don’t feel you are entering a website; but it is one! this kind of smart design helped generate in our brains this idea that social media is the internet.” he says. “i remember once hearing MATIAS MAXX saying that at the internet there was this competition fairness between platforms because, for instance, to enter either O GLOBO's website or URBe’s the user would have to do the same: open the browser, type the url and press enter. maybe URBe would even have some advantage because it had fewer letters to type. this was indeed a reality for a long time but nowadays it’s just not true anymore. it’s become a very hard game to play. you’re up against a gigantic media budget, and even the external forces… who would have thought that websites would put the traditional media on its knees? it obligated everyone to give out content for free; it’s crazy to think that”
so, with all this grim perspective/analysis, is there a way back to the romantic pre-fenced and easier to explain internet? “people are slowly questioning the origin of certain information and, more than that, why they’re receiving that specific information. i think that this wave of fake news contributed to that”, and he may be right - an NBC NEWS poll said 66% of facebook users has lost their trust on the platform ever since the cambridge analytica scandal broke and our guess is that with the many cultural products like netflix’s THE GREAT HACK yet to come, this number will grow bigger.
filtering, natal says, isn’t a problem. in fact, he believes it to be - with so many information available - the most important occupation for a journalist; to objectively process and contextualize that data. “curatorship”. a fine example of it, he says, is the indie movie platform MUBI, which selects 30 movies a month - so its users have 1 movie a day, if they want - and then changes it all, different from netflix, which should create free accounts to people who just browse, browse and browse their infinite library until it gives up and turns it off without watching anything.
“i think podcasts are doing so well because they share the values of the real internet. since it’s audio content, it’s been able to fly under the algorithm radar. it’s difficult to track, and monitor. spotify and other audio streaming services are not that invasive and aggressive as well, so creators have been able to create or filter content and build communities and start conversations without corporate internet getting in the way… it’s very much the old internet.”
but GODDAMNED! what is the internet now?! - you ask.
interestingly, while it was questioned several times during this interview, bruno natal wound up, unknowingly, giving the best answer to this question a few days after on his twitter feed.
in a thread, he said the netflix hit series STRANGER THINGS was an allegory to the current times, particularly the internet.
mixing that notion with everything he said to us, nowadays the internet is the UPSIDE-DOWN WORLD, where visionaries like bruno natal point to the past, and status-quo keepers are trying hard to change things. and what’s best is that in the upside-down world, the small ones (ELEVEN and friends) have the power and are learning to use it to make a better world, while the big ones (DEMOGORGONS) are terrified of having its days numbered.
might not be *the* answer, but it’s sure as hell *an* answer. may we act as scientist-journalists - just like bruno natal has been doing for so long - and build from that.
August 16, 2019