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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Back in December, at the urging of a certain perpetually disappointed family member, I decided to jettison my "Snuggies and sweaters" approach to holiday gift giving for a more thoughtful, individualized alternative. I kicked things off by purchasing a Disneyland jigsaw puzzle, circa 1965, for $15 on eBay. I thought it would make a nice gift for my Disney-obsessed younger cousin.

Thereafter, in a Mountain Dew-fueled, 45-minute spurt of good cheer, I bought six or seven more gifts online, each one masquerading as some kind of rarity: a 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins yearbook, a heretofore elusive, 408-page tome on motorcycle parts, and so on. The gifts, when presented, had the intended effect. "Where on earth did you find this?" my relatives asked, one by one, excitedly. My response was consistent and coy: "Don't worry about it."

For a few minutes, I felt exultant—a champion at the sport of e-commerce. But when our gift exchange ended, something unexpected happened: I started to feel sad. I also felt like I had cheated.

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The Internet, with all its top-speed awesomeness, has rendered hundreds of pastimes and proclivities (sports trivia, porn acquisition, late-night song lyric competitions) much less challenging. For me, though, the most distressing side effect of Web-based instant gratification is the death of the treasure hunt. Gone is the fun and euphoria that used to go hand-in-hand with tracking down rare, goofy products. Thanks to eBay, Craigslist, Amazon, and the rest, there's no longer any such thing as an uncommon consumer item. That's great … and a shame.

Yes, the fact that it takes less than two minutes to locate and purchase a 45-year-old Disneyland jigsaw puzzle makes my life easier and frees me up for another Christmas Vacation viewing. But the downside to easy acquisitions of this sort is that there's no sense of accomplishment, no joy in acquiring something unique. I now yearn for the bygone era when getting my hands on a niche product would've entailed a complicated, probably frustrating, but ultimately rewarding search.

In the mid-1980s, for instance, it was hard work to acquire caps bearing the logos of minor league baseball teams. I know this because back then, when I was 14, I looked everywhere for those stupid hats. I hunted for them, devised plans for accessing them, and wrote letters to numerous, anonymous sirs requesting mythical merchandise catalogs. There was no Internet. Dorks, though, still existed. And I was a baseball cap dork.

I ran with a ragtag crew of pint-sized hat collectors. The kid with the most rare caps was king of the mountain, and fitted minor league baseball hats were pure gold. Local sporting goods stores didn't stock them, so we used vacations to places like Virginia Beach and Orlando as opportunities to seek out caps at malls, hobby shops, and dusty old ballparks.

One summer, after a buddy passed his driver's test, we persuaded his dad to let us motor halfway across Pennsylvania for a Harrisburg Senators game. We didn't care about the game. We wanted new hats and dreamed of a concession stand overflowing with minor league headgear of all colors and sizes. We hoped against hope that it would be there, perhaps next to a rickety cotton candy machine or a carnival-style fast-pitch game. It was not. We went home capless. (And, also, my friend almost crashed his dad's car in Mechanicsburg.)

Two weeks later, though, I mailed $25 to a cousin in Charlotte and asked him to hit up a baseball card show in Rock Hill, S.C. "Buy me the coolest minor league cap you can find," I told him. A Chattanooga Lookouts cap arrived in the mail a few weeks later, and I immediately forgot all about that lousy trip to Harrisburg. An older kid offered me a Wilson A2000 baseball glove for it. I felt like a star.

For baseball cap geeks of the modern era, or Barbie enthusiasts, or collectors of antique thimbles, or whatever, the 1980s may as well be 10,000 years ago. You can now find almost any consumer product you're looking to buy, no matter how eccentric. And, unless you're my grandfather, it's just not that difficult. Today's 14-year-old baseball cap fiend need not visit minor league parks, mail off handwritten letters, or hit up out-of-town hobby shows. Instead, he can visit milbstore.com and choose from 367 different fitted caps—why journey to Richmond when you can order a road red Flying Squirrels hat from your rumpus room?

So while thousands of baseball caps and Barbie dolls and Dave Matthews bootlegs change hands every day, there are far fewer eureka moments in 2011 than in 1985. After all, how much elation can spring forth from a well-crafted Google search? Where is the thrill in an eBay buy-it-now purchase?

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