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.

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?

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.

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.