Eureka lost: How the Internet has destroyed the thrill of the hunt.

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Feb. 9 2011 3:12 AM

Eureka Lost

How the Internet has destroyed the thrill of the hunt.

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You might argue that the more gratifying eureka of old has been supplanted by myriad mini-eurekas on the Web. I say the two experiences are not all that similar. The Internet eureka is a lesser emotion, something akin to the feeling one gets after prevailing thanks to a hidden, unfair advantage—the steroid abuser's mammoth home run, or a wind-aided 100-meter record.

Successful Internet "hunts" also spoil us and erode perspective. Assuming you have the requisite funds, every get is easy, every purchase quick—regardless of whether the item in question is a sturdy pair of Doc Martens or a delicate, 100-year-old vase. The lack of a complicated acquisition process means we take our capacity to acquire for granted. As much as I hate to sound like my mother, it really is the case that the journey can be as important as the destination. And working to achieve a goal—even if it's the purchase of some bizarre stuffed animal or a particularly hard-to-find hair care product—almost always makes reaching that goal more fulfilling.

Recently, while riding the subway in Manhattan, I spotted and fell in love with a retro, green winter jacket. As the man wearing the jacket bounded off the train, I was able to make out the words "California Surf Co." on the right breast of the coat. Had this happened in the 1980s, I would've had to engage in some first-rate sleuthing to track down the jacket—phone books, long distance calls, the cornering of relatives from California at family gatherings. If I did somehow manage to locate the elusive outerwear, I would have been overjoyed.

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Alas, the most satisfaction I could glean from the online purchase I made 15 minutes after the episode on the train was that it required me to pay in pounds instead of dollars, since the "California Surf Co." appears to be a British corporation. Woo-hoo!

Don't get me wrong, I like my new jacket. And the Internet did what it is supposed to do: It made that which was previously difficult fairly simple. But I miss the kind of real-life problem solving that my memorabilia collecting used to abet. These days, the only impediments to my Internet "hunts" are on the order of, say, misspelling Saucony and having to click on Google's "Did you mean" link to get the proper page of search results. Oh yeah, and one time, in buying a desk, I had to use the Hudson Valley version of Craigslist instead of the New York City version.

While I am saluting the don't-know-what-you've-got-'till-it's-gone-ness of a less high-tech era, I don't want to push for a computer boycott so we can return to the days when rare products took forever to find. Things change. Hats and jackets become easier and less fun to locate. Still, I do miss those old searches, and I smile every time a hunt-based eureka scenario pops up in the news. There are still a few super-rare, one-of-a-kind, holy grail-esque items that cannot be found via Google—things like the shark from Jaws.

Last year, a lifelong fan of the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic decided that he was going to try and hunt down a long-lost 25-foot mechanical shark (nickname: Bruce) said to be one of only four cast from the original mold. This guy wasn't playing around. He met with Spielberg's people, visited with NBC Universal's manager of archives and collections, cold-called a bunch of L.A. junkyards, and, ultimately, flew across the country with the shark's designer in tow to confirm that a behemoth rotting away in Sun Valley, Calif., was indeed the real thing. Then he put his head in the shark's mouth and posed for a photograph.

This was an old-school eureka moment, and proof that all is not lost when it comes to some things still being lost. It's not too late for us to reel in our own versions of that great white shark. The hunt for that 1980s Chattanooga Lookouts cap with my initials scrawled under the brim begins now.

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Do you have a "eureka lost" tale to share? Is there some product, device, recipe ingredient, or clothing item you once went to extreme lengths to hunt down that now, thanks to the Internet, is accessible in mere seconds? We'd also love to hear your great "eureka found" stories—how, even in the age of the Web, it took you months of detective work to track down an elusive item. Leave your eureka moments in the comments, and we'll collect the best for a future column.

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Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

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