March 1, 2012

Don’t Shoot the (Bike) Messenger

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It was a sunny, warm fall day in 2010 when my friend and I pulled up to the stop sign on Buffalo St. in front of Washington Park. Our talk about a stop at the Maté Factor was interrupted as a bicyclist came flying around the corner on a rusty Raleigh, drifting and counter-steering his way through the whole intersection.

Needless to say, my friend and I were blown away. We caught up to the shaggy-haired bicyclist at the next light and rolled down our window. “Hey man, that was awesome,” I said. His beard shook as he responded, “Don’t fuck with me! I was a bike messenger in New York City for 24 years! We used to drop acid, sit in Central Park all day, play frisbee and hacky sack, and listen to Third Stone from the Sun. You know that song?”

He went on, “You go to Cornell? What do you study?” “Economics and Government.” “Good luck! Major in Chemistry, we need more acid!” The light turned green, our cyclist friend pedaled ahead, made a Tron-like turn into the next alley and was gone.

Only in Ithaca. The first piece of advice I can give readers of this column is to make friends with the residents here. At the very least, you’ll get an interesting story, and a bit more exposure to the city we are all a part of.

The cyclist had me worried. That fall was the bottom of the financial crisis, and suddenly I was thinking to myself “You know, maybe I should major in Chemistry. Owsley Stanley made LSD as an undergrad at Berkeley, and he’s famous. I could produce something useful with my major.”

If Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it’s that scientific knowledge is valuable but often leaves unintended consequences in its wake. Albert Hofmann was busy researching new medicine when he synthesized LSD, but he couldn’t have imagined the impact LSD would have on the arts or the psyche in the 60s and 70s. Jimi Hendrix solos, Ken Kesey and Parliament Funkadelic come to mind, among others.

But as Kesey predicted, the world has mostly moved “beyond acid;” and more recently, hippies have given way to a new generation of hipsters. You’ve seen them, the fixie-riding, thick glasses wearing, french-press coffee and PBR drinking, ‘you wouldn’t understand my music” set. You might even call them “artsy,” and maybe they’ve majored in it.

Arts majors get a lot of unnecessary flak from students of science these days. Maybe it’s payback for years of being typecast as nerdy, awkward and socially inept. Now they’ve got salaries and the question du jour for Arts students: “What do you plan to do with that?” as if a lack of hard science equates to complete unemployability or eternal baristadom. Movies like Moneyball, The Social Network, or Margin Call reinforce the notion that being quantitatively minded is the only relevant (read: profitable) path for today’s youth.

Or is it? I’ll give you an example. Have you ever heard of Dennis Ritchie? How about Steve Jobs? One developed C and UNIX, hugely important programming languages that your iPhone and OSX laptop rely on, and the other wore black turtlenecks and remarked that taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things [he had] done in [his] life.” Both passed within a week of each other, Jobs received the bulk of media coverage despite Ritchie contributing much more to the advancement of computer technology.

Remember what I said about unintended consequences? Steve Jobs took the technology Ritchie developed, made it aesthetically pleasing and capitalized upon it. Technology is trendy today, but the future is interdisciplinary. The question tomorrow will likely be “¿No entiendes Español?,” or “What are the social implications of our new product?”

Arts scholars will be well poised to answer these, provided they know a bit about the technological and data-driven trends shaping our world.

I hope that with CornellNYC Tech and the new Goldwin Smith addition, the University examines its approach to instruction in the arts and humanities, and stresses useful computer and technological skills in all majors, pursuant to a well-rounded education.

Like riding a bicycle, academia is all about balance. Now more than ever there exists the need for common ground between the arts and sciences, not a chasm. Most students are acutely aware of environmental degradation and other problems hippies lamented, but don’t know where to begin in solving them. It starts with not confining ourselves to preconceived styles and roles as “enginerds,” consultants, pre-meds, social scientists or “hipsters.” Why fit into one of these molds when one can provide a useful service as an individual and show others how it’s done, like our elusive preacher and bike messenger.

Original Author: Patrick Cambre