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On the fuzzy-techie aesthetic divide

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Continuing with our trend of viewing the world in binary on an all-or-nothing scale, the fuzzy-techie divide, once a mere apparition of doom, has been theorized and think-pieced into bona fide psychological reality.

ASHLEY PHUONG/The Stanford Daily
(ASHLEY CHANG/The Stanford Daily)

In the throes of industrial revolution (circa 1834), the word “scientist” was coined as a counterpoint to “artist,” reflecting “the growth of a self-conscious sense of professional identity among those who studied the natural world.” In 1956, an early instigator of the schism, English physical chemist and novelist C.P. Snow, described what he called the “two cultures” spawned by the British educational system’s overemphasis on specialization. He condemned the intellectual monopoly of the “traditional culture” (or “literary intellectuals”) as a source of the marginalization of science and engineering. Snow attested to the moral necessity of scientific study, for it is scientists who push the boundaries of human knowledge, who function as the “directing class” of “new society.”

Little did Lord Snow know that his belief in the supremacy of science would soon be commonplace. Following WWII, higher education in the US saw a surge in large new student populations, and a reshaping of its functionality and purpose. And with this “transformation from a public good to a private benefit that confers economic rewards,” enrollment shifted sharply from the humanities and social sciences to engineering and applied sciences as a means of remaining globally competitive and financially afloat.

The ramifications of this shift cut deeply into the lesson plans of jaded academics and rambunctious yuppies alike. The parameters of prestige and stability have transformed higher education into a “four-year intelligence test…sort[ing] people according to aptitude.” Of the three theories of higher education that Louis Menand proposes, it seems that the theory that views college as “a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentialing service” is winning out. Consequently, the humanities have been in a state of emergency of late, engaged in a mad scramble to remind society and debt-ridden students of their enduring value and relevance to humanity. Until common ground can be found, the separation of the fuzzy and the techie that Lord Snow warned about is yet “getting deeper under our eyes.”

And what better place to incubate this separation than at Stanford, the palpitating heart of the Silicon (“Tech IPO and VC Billionaire Mecca”) Valley?

However, the metaphysical fuzzy-techie divide runs deeper than mere intellectual and professional pursuits. Certainly, it is in functionality and practice where the greatest brunt of the funding allocation, existential angst, and passive aggressive hostility simmers. But the most insidious manifestation of the fuzzy-techie divide lies not in projected tax returns or ability to save babies and decrease world suck. No—what truly and most fundamentally lies at the core of the ginormous unscalable gaping chasm between the fuzzies and the techies is…The Aesthetic Divide.

And not just any kind of aesthetic—I’m talking about a e s t h e t i c, aka the arcane Tumblr shibboleth that has granted urban Millennials a formidable hold on Etsy and rebooted indie boho-chic small businesses nationwide.

From the moment we declare our allegiance to one of these ferociously antagonistic camps, or their satellite interdisciplinary colonies and/or wildcard pre-professional tribes, we are subtly inculcated with the Aesthetic Code and the spectrum of privileges bestowed by the fuzzy and the techie. Even before we cobbled together a vague understanding of just how unprepared we were about our first midterm, or shocked ourselves with the quality of BS we could produce in one hour, we were inducted into the telltale uniform of our comrades.

Consider Exhibit A: The Fuzzy Boa Vintage Hipster but Not Hipster In Inconceivable!, Problematic Fact. They think, live, and breathe in sepia—from their mass-market paperback, to the unidentified stain on their thrift shop imitation leather jacket, to the bulletproof coffee in their eco-friendly mason jars and ceramic variations of “Ceci n’est pas un mug.” Perhaps it began when they first picked up Hegel, or some equally European and sesquipedalian guy with good hair on some derivative of nitrous, acid, and other friendly pharmaceuticals; something about the abstract impenetrability of their writing subconsciously inspired these confused aesthetes to don their first floral patterned article of clothing as an exercise of pareidolia—all forms of paisley and translated gibberish have meaning if you tilt your head and squint at it the right way for a few hours. The thickness of the tomes they casually caress almost rival the luscious voluminosity of their lumberjack beards and untamed armpit hair (though, admittedly, collegiates in general have a thing for long hair don’t care). Their aesthetic is complete with a scrappy messenger bag containing a copy of a) one crumpled handout from a “What Can I Do With A Humanities Degree?” lunch panel, b.) something from The Western CanonTM, and/or c.) some text not from The Western CanonTM that will serve as a counterpoint to some text from The Western CanonTM as a brief footnote in their course’s DiversityTM Week before sinking back into dusty, exotic oblivion. (Though, perhaps the new Humanities Core might alleviate the growing pains of cultural competency). Variations include Exhibit A1: The Angry Bassoon Player, and Exhibit A2: Techie On the Outside, Fuzzy On the Inside.

Contrast this with Exhibit B: The “Wade Load What’s Good” Techie. They’re usually found hunched over a laptop in isolated pockets of silent, unblinking calm that mask bloodcurdling internal screaming. In the midst of their legions, rhythmic typing and overheated computers echo with the pulse of inexorable technological revolution, wannabe beneficent startup tycoons, and caffeinated despair. Black T-shirts, hoodies, and tinted eyewear abound in an attempt to become one with the all-consuming blank darkness of the multiple screens surrounding them and the lonely/suffocating night sky of regret and scrapped dreams of scalability. It’s important, however, not to forget Exhibit C1: The Techie Broski, bringing a fine sheen of Old Spice and suntan to Polos and sandals in winter, invariably fondling pieces of scrap metal or chemically inducing stem elongation. There’s also the chimerical Exhibit C2: The Ethnic and Gender Minority, gradually finding their way in the thick mists of diversity programming and unconscious bias.

But this Aesthetic Divide goes beyond individual style, into the very architecture of department buildings and classrooms. At Techie HQ, the sleek cleanliness of the Engineering Quad scintillates in white tile and chrome interiors and smooth façades. Vibrant green and well-manicured lawns arranged in geometric patterns symbolize the techie’s successful endeavors to tame wild Nature by dint of chemical manipulation and mathematical precision. Flanked by linoleum tile and multiple unidentified sources of chemical fumes, the natural science buildings of Gilbert, Mitchell, and Mudd (“Where Pre-Med Dreams Die”) reflect their investigation into the fundamental parts of nature. Like fresh lab coats and unopened $500 textbooks, the techie’s understated minimalism showcases its devotion to utility and transformation—smooth flat walls like blank canvases to create and innovate.

Conversely, the Fuzzy central base of the Main Quad is resplendent with russet sandstone and low arches capitalizing on transcendent rays of golden hour sun. Contained circles of palm trees and assorted flora bloom and buzz with contained majesty and raging allergens. On the north wall, Jesus presides over a steady stream of tourists and students at Memorial Church. Muted carpets, wooden panels, and creaking stairs declare fiat lux on passing time, the intangible and non-fungible. Contrary to what one would think, considering the presumed lack of ROI sucking all vitality from the humanities, it is the Main Quad and its epic view of Palm Drive that is featured in all Stanford PR materials. If the humanities have any claim to utility, we can at the very least keep them as a historical gesture, as an ongoing homage to the learned elite.

And reflecting the midway position of art production, we have the McMurtry building, melding geometric blocks and clean lines arranged with mixed media finesse. Bright orange caverns and well-distributed lighting scream for the eye to look and continue looking. Floor-to-ceiling office doors vaguely reminiscent of Star Trek portals and horror movie silhouettes are gateways to professors with good vision. Likewise, with Braun, its design reflects an area of study that is inextricable from technology in its creation, yet largely visceral in its function and application.

Of course, I’m making gross generalizations, and shamefully neglecting a multitude of other enlightening stereotypes. But the ramifications of the fuzzy-techie Aesthetic Divide extends beyond the purely visual. However much we may choose to deny or reject this schism, the fuzzy-techie divide permeates every aspect of our lives as students, ultimately impacting how we choose to view and engage with the world. From the self-image we project to our physical environment, to what we touch and ruminate on a day to day basis, whether we face each other in discourse or sit in stacked rows listening to one person, we are ensconced in Ways of Thinking and Doing (get it) that encourage us to jump into the deep and narrow hole of specialization. And sometimes this very specialization that allows us to push the boundaries of knowledge of in a specific field can lead to a closing off of the possibility for transcendence of those boundaries.

We must challenge ourselves to look at the world through as many lenses as we can, for there are worlds of beauty, utility, and grace in all disciplines. An interdisciplinary course of study is essential, whether it be through programs like CS+X and Human Biology, or through deliberate exploration throughout one’s academic journey. GERs (or WAYS) are not obstacles to “get out of the way,” but safeguards against the tunnel vision of expertise, and ultimately opportunities to venture beyond the protective barrier of higher education. Though we must choose camps as we must choose Pokémon Gyms and Hogwarts Houses, for the enrichment of our education, polyamory is encouraged. To be fuzzy or techie is not to choose between stability or precarity, ethos or pathos. Humanistic study does not imply stagnant analyses and creations, and nor does, as Robert Sapolsky said, being scientific preclude the capacity to be compassionate.

It is not a matter of where the money “inevitably” lies—for we elect what remains relevant, we define what is useful, and we choose the ultimate purpose of these years of travail. It is not elitist or idealistic to hope and strive for a well-rounded education. For it is the lucky privilege we have earned to be able to shape what our education means to us and to those who follow—it is our Aesthetic. And by the power of supply and demand, we can transform these two cultures, one LinkedIn profile and post-nominal letter at a time. If all fails, just know that at the end of the day, we’re all sleep-deprived ignoramuses at the grind inhaling second-hand weed smoke and wearing shorts in winter. For the most part.

Challenge yourself, enrich your aesthetic—exclusivity is optional.

Contact Vivian Lam at vivlam25 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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