I'm going to take the Graduate Record Examination. The math is easy. The reading/criticism isn't too bad. But there are two 30-minute essay sections, and that's not so cool for me, because I'm a slow, slow writer. I plod along, exchanging synonyms, tightening structure, adjusting paragraph divisions, and generally feeling horrible until I like what I see. Then I take a deep breath, and in a full voice, I begin a blissfully, unabashedly self-indulgent reading of my work.

Otherwise what's the point?

So of course I utterly despise timed composition. But I've been training myself in it so that I won't completely fail. The prompts are published on ETS's website, so I've been writing from those. I started out taking...a very long time for each essay. Now, I'm often just barely down to the 30-minute mark. I'm getting there. I think I'll be okay.

Writing these is taking up all of my writing time, just when I wanted to get back into e2. But I hypothesize that the GRE might not be out of every noder's field of interest, and that perhaps my essays might be marginally useful to someone on a similar trajectory. So I'm going to node them.

Here's one of the first ones I wrote, introduced by its prompt.

As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.

The idea of technology as inimical to human problem-solving is a tempting one for a number of reasons. This idea provides a facile explanation for the common feeling that the accomplishments of the present are dwarfed by those of the past, and it lends support to a natural fear of innovation. Perhaps most defensibly, it can seem a reasonable conclusion in view of the fact that genuine skills—of which a whole array of bespoke craft disciplines provide examples—often fall out of widespread use and knowledge due to having been replaced by automatic and technological solutions.

However, the truth is not so categorical. (Let us acknowledge, but not spend undue time on, the fact that technological solutions themselves are human in origin, thereby giving the lie to the assertion that they obliterate human problem-solving skill.) Technology has indeed caused certain skills to decline, but the answer to the (rather complex) question of whether it has caused a general erosion of human problem-solving capacity seems to be weighted in the negative. I will support this assertion through three examples: that of photography vs. painting, of manufacturing vs. handicraft, and of computing and typing vs. human calculation, handwriting, and print. These examples will support two hypotheses. The first of these, which I will term “problematic evolution,” asserts that when it may seem that problem-solving ability has been replaced with a technological advancement, the human tendency to solve problems will move on to previously uninvestigated realms of the same topic. The second hypothesis, which I will call “problematic substitution,” holds that the technological solution may actually simultaneously confront human ingenuity with its own, new set of problems; which, so far from stifling problem-solving ability, lead into new human solutions and new inquiries.

The problem of creating realistic visual representations is an enduringly human one, and its various solutions have resulted in some of our greatest achievements. The attitude that technology kills human problem-solving ability would hold that the advent of photography, being a “solution” to this problem, would forever obliterate the individual skill and learning that had previously been required to solve the problem; that it would end visual art as a function of human creativity.

The reality, however, supports both of the above hypotheses. Photography, rather than obliterating art, has quickly become part of it in innumerable respects. Having so thoroughly “solved” the problem of nearly perfect visual reproduction, photography freed artists to the realization that the true problem of art was not simple copying, but individual expression. Magnificent accomplishments of modern art, such as those of Chuck Close, have only been possible in a world in which the problematic evolution made possible by photography has moved human focus away from the simple problem of representation, and enabled and assisted it to re-center itself upon the problem of expression. (This problematic evolution has radiated through many other artistic fields than painting, such as sculpture and architecture, and even literary theory, enabling magnificent treatises such as Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.)

Photography also presented new problems through problematic substitution: in almost immediately becoming an art form in its own right, photographic art presented human ingenuity with a host of unforeseen problems. One of these, that of how to represent human subjects in a relaxed and natural way, was caused by the lengthy and delicate process of exposure in early photography. Not only did the effort to solve this problem lead to many very interesting works of art, but it also led to a rapid improvement in photographic technology. Photography as a solution to the problem of visual representation seems to have stimulated rather than dulled human problem-solving ability in the field of art.

Perhaps the opposition of skilled craftsmanship and mechanical manufacture may seem to be less favorable toward the idea that technology leaves human problem-solving ability undamaged. But this is one of the fields in which problematic evolution has had its strongest effect. Rather than completely obliterate the skills that were once necessary for the creation of all apparel, household items, etc., manufacture has simultaneously made such objects much more cheaply and abundantly available; and set up a hierarchy of artisanship, turning “custom” and bespoke articles into prestige items. The problem of simply “making things” became that of making things beautifully and well enough to attract the attention of those who care to pay the price of that prestige. Problematic substitution, more simply, has urged mechanical engineers to incredible and impressive feats of efficiency in designing the equipment necessary for the modern scale of manufacture.

These innovations lead naturally into the discussion of the opposition between technologies such as computing, typing, and the internet, and skills such as arithmetic and handwriting. The technological advances that began in the Industrial Revolution led (through problematic substitution) into the development of calculation engines, word processing devices, and eventually the personal computer and the Internet. The problems that these technologies at least partially solve—those of counting and adding, rapid writing and editing, and ease of communication—are so ubiquitous that even a partial solution can seem dangerous. After all, it is true that rapid mental arithmetic, good spelling, and elegant letter writing seem to be falling to the wayside in the age of the smartphone.

However, the technologies replacing those skills have presented the individual with new problems of their own (problematic evolution). For instance, learning to use any of the multiple computers most modern Americans use every day is a feat of no less skill than that of mastering the multiplication table. As a less individual example, the dizzying pace of improvement in internet speed and bandwidth, and the inexorable demand for yet more improvement, attest to the fact that there remain large problems in this field for human ingenuity to solve.

Problematic substitution, having removed the problem of easy communication, set up the problem of how best to use the new abilities the new technology provides. However, the most widespread of these uses alleviate the worry that skill in textual composition may be eroded by its newfound ease. Although the world is still adjusting to information technology, it seems that the internet, etc. will only widen the range and increase the distribution of long-form prose, news articles, and most particularly the personal essay (blog entry). (My aim is not to callously overlook the difficulty print is having in accommodating these developments; this is what I meant in saying that “the world is still adjusting” to them.)

Technology will never remove the human desire to find and solve problems. In fact, it has only ever revealed new problems and increased the number of problems available. In presenting new problems and in enabling us to move on to problems beyond those which it solves, technology broadens rather than narrows the human range of inquiry; it aids rather than harms our capacity for problem-solving.

Time: 90 minutes. Three times what it should be.

I think this is serviceable, but there's no way I'd be able to write all this in half an hour. And I think some of these points sound hilariously hopeful and naïve. I think the tone is right, though.

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