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Mystery Loves Company

Has our unrelenting curiosity (and addiction to Internet research) ruined the element of surprise? DuJour ponders the risk of leaving things to chance


Not anymore.

An escalating array of cyber-tools now at our disposal—along with our natural curiosity—is taking a lot of the mystery and spontaneity out of life. More and more, we’re technologically arming ourselves against surprises, just in case they might be unpleasant ones.

It’s gone way beyond Googling a restaurant menu and checking out pictures and reviews of the foie-gras terrine before you order. A host of more invasive sites go deeper, and go inside. Realtor.com lets you find out that the house down the street has mirrored bedroom ceilings, while Porch.com will tell you which contractors your neighbors used for their new Brazilian walnut sundeck—with photos. And DiedInHouse.com will tell you whether a body has ever been carried out of it.

Cue the outrage about violated privacy. But, come on, admit it: You’ve Googled your dates, co-workers and friends so often you don’t remember what they’ve told you and what you’ve learned about them from LinkedIn and their New York Times wedding announcement(s)—which can make for some “whoops!” dinner conversation. The Internet is making it easier than ever to move along the keyboard continuum from researcher to control freak to secret stalker.

Sometimes, you don’t even want the information you get. TV spoilers, from whodunit to who died (Eddard Stark! Matthew Crawley!), are common. Amazon.com even had a discussion board, “Christmas surprises ruined,” with people complaining their gifts had been revealed by Amazon’s recommendations of add-ons.

There are pitfalls to so much information. Restaurant-wise, if you go where the lemmings go, it’s sometimes off a culinary cliff, right into offal and foam. And you don’t have the thrill, the pride, of discovering something for yourself.

But the bottom line, the real issue, isn’t so much that the mystery has gone out of life. Chaos has a way of happening regardless; you ultimately can’t eliminate surprises. Thank God. The real shame of having all this information available is that we come to believe that leaving things to chance is somehow irresponsible. That chaos befalls those who haven’t already, conscientiously, done their homework on the computer.

If you’re not enjoying your vacation, perhaps you should have checked your weather app ahead of time. Googled images of the hotel room. Chosen your airline seat on SeatGuru.com—and your seatmate through a service called Planely. Selected bedding before check-in with the pillow concierge. Researched the city’s best gumbo/sangria/linzer tart. Maybe even spied on the nanny. Not the perfect vacation? It’s all your fault.

Of course, if you had done all that, not only would you have lost your job for inattention, not to mention your nanny for just the opposite, but the hotel room you got would probably still reek of cigar smoke and have a bed sized for a 9 year old. Scouring the Internet ultimately doesn’t guarantee the protection and control we seek. And the ability to do so much research brings with it the burden of actually carrying it out.

I won’t convince you to turn off the computer, trust to chance and embrace surprise with this argument. We both know that’s not going to happen. But you should at least be using your powers, and your WiFi, for good. Go off and find the world’s best gumbo. And e-mail me.