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In Opposition to Beats Radio

Benjamin Shoemake, Columnist

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The first time I saw a commercial for Beats 1, Apple’s new worldwide internet radio station, I was sitting at home, watching television. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on, but the tune was catchy, the cinematography was engaging, and I thought, “People uniting around music, that sounds pretty alright.” When I saw it for the second time, I was paying a little closer attention, and I’ll be honest: It kinda scared me.

In case you don’t watch enough music videos on YouTube for it to have come up in the ads beforehand, here is roughly how the commercial goes. Zane Lowe, Beats 1 radio DJ, steps up to the mic. “We’ve got the whole world locked in for this one,” he says. A catchy beat plays in the background, and the camera shows people from around the world, in vastly different contexts, all listening and interacting with the same music in their own way. “Think Different,” reads the faded T-shirt of one man–ironic, as he is tuned into the same channel as everyone else. The vocalist, Pharell, sings out: “Freedom!”

The message of cultural imperialism implicit in the advertisement is so plainly visible that it’s almost as if Apple doesn’t care about hiding it. It is as if they are saying, “We already create the computers you use and the phones you live your life on. Let us create your culture, too.” A new musical landscape without borders may sound appealing, but the idea of everyone in the world not only using the same devices but also listening to the exact same song seems too surreal to ignore.

Of course, perhaps it would be good to look at this in context. The Internet that Apple Music depends upon finds its beginnings as a US Department of Defense sponsored network known as ARPANET, and has carried a distinctly American flair since its inception. As an blatant but easy-to-miss example, the top-level domain names .gov, .mil, and .edu are reserved exclusively for US-affiliated agencies. The Complutense University of Madrid, for instance, is found instead at www.ucm.es.

The technologies that we use online also consistently privilege European languages over all others. Duolingo, a popular language-learning website, offers courses in Esperanto, an invented language of European origin, but not in Mandarin, which has nearly five hundred times as many speakers. Han characters and the Arabic script make up the second and third most common writing systems in the world, but support for text running vertically or right-to-left online is still very much in-progress. And while the people responsible for standardizing the technologies necessary for these changes are generally very receptive to problems of localization, it is a slow and difficult process that comes after years of improper technical support.

Considering these facts, it might seem as though a service like Beats 1 would be a welcome change–finally, an internet service which sets everyone on equal footing–but the introduction of a new American cultural product to a service which already caters to the whims of the American consumer, whose very standards are created and defined within our borders, is not progress. Instead, we create an online climate in which the only voices we hear are our own, and we become the only people who matter.

We need to stop forcing American products, the English language, and US culture onto the rest of the world, and start creating new technologies that allow us to better hear what is being said in response. The problems we face as a country may seem steep at times, but it is important to remember that there is a vibrant population of seven billion people outside our borders that we can turn to for help. Some of them will say no, but still others might say yes.

Before we can take that step, however, we need to make sure we are positioned in a place where we can listen. Part of that process requires working to reduce technological barriers for languages other than our own. But another part–and, perhaps, the more important of the two–is to stop broadcasting ourselves so loudly that everything else is drowned out. In doing that, Apple’s Beats 1 radio represents the opposition.

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Whitman news since 1896
In Opposition to Beats Radio