Three or four times a week, more often than I care to admit, I find myself checking boxes on an online quiz. You know, the type you see on social media: Which Beatle are you? Or: How much do you know about baseball? Or: In which country should you live? Most recently, I fell into a quiz labeled AP English that featured 67 questions – 67? – about antonyms and synonyms.
I took the AP English exam in high school; I failed it because I walked out. Even then, I was a contrarian, or perhaps I wasn’t interested enough. I remember sitting in a gymnasium, filling in multiple choice boxes, dreading the essays I did not want to write. When I stood up, test unfinished, what I felt mostly was relief.
What would it mean to be stumped by a computer? What would it mean to be outwitted by a bot? As I moved through the questions, I was aware of anxiety rising in my chest and fingers, as if something were actually at stake.
This is how I feel toward online quizzes also, which I never share on social media. Still, I continue to take them, for reasons I can’t quantify. I have never liked being tested, never liked the false authority of it. I prefer critical thinking over recitation, analysis over rote recovery of facts. At the same time, I am highly competitive – with no one so much as myself. I want, I need, to answer every question correctly; I refresh and try again when I get one wrong.
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In the case of the AP English quiz, that was heightened; I am a writer, after all. Grammar, word choice, sentence construction – these are the tools by which I define my life. What would it mean to be stumped by a computer? What would it mean to be outwitted by a bot? As I moved through the questions, I was aware of anxiety rising in my chest and fingers, as if something were actually at stake.
The questions were straightforward, except when they weren’t – a matter of phrasing as much as anything. “The sketchy circumstances surrounding how the bag of money got to the front door were ______ at best,” one of these prompts read; the possible responses were “sage” or “precarious.”
That’s a terrible sentence, poorly written, although the correct choice is obvious. And yet, we don’t read or write for meaning exclusively but also for the art of the expression – what let’s call intangibles. This is why I stepped away from that AP exam all those years ago; it’s the reason I rarely finish online quizzes if they take too long. At some point, my competitiveness is eclipsed by my boredom or my dissatisfaction, my sense that I am wasting time.
It took half an hour to work through all of the questions in the online quiz, a waste of time to be sure, regardless of my desire to do well. I got every one of them right, which mattered more than it ought to, and makes me feel a bit ashamed. Why do I care about this quiz or any other? What does it mean to me?
I don’t know the answer to that question, except to suggest that we are often powerless: over government, family, jobs. Every day, we walk through a world that lacks the logic, even, of the most capricious test, leaving us to make it up as we go along. When I am asked about the Beatles or the proper use of language, I have a certain fleeting sense of power – better yet, an expertise. It’s inconsequential, sure it is, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel good, the way that for a moment, I know something, although what, of course, I couldn’t say.
David L. Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.