Joan Wickersham

Too much information

AT A recent dinner with friends, someone was telling a story about taking her teenage kids to New York, where they'd stumbled into a store so cool that she hadn't been able to figure out the name of it. "Uniqlo? Uniglo? It had one of those beautiful, unreadable logos. Anyway —" she said; but we never got to hear the rest of the story, because someone at the table had whipped out an iPhone and was making a big production of looking up the name of the store. "Uniglo," the looker-upper announced triumphantly (and erroneously). "Ah," we all murmured. The conversation died. Why couldn't the poor woman have been allowed to simply tell her story? Why this reluctance to let even the smallest, most whimsical question remain unanswered?

Our culture is increasingly obsessed with having all information available, all the time. We want what we want as soon as we want it. Even the language is getting more entitled and insistent and irritable. We have "on-demand movies," "instant messaging," ""one-click ordering." Now, damn it! But as the gap shrinks between wondering and knowing, between desiring and possessing, we may be losing something important: the tantalizing ache of the unattainable.

To want something and not be able to get it sounds, on the surface, like deprivation. But wanting can actually be preferable to getting. It certainly makes for more interesting art: "Great Expectations," "Don Quixote, "Madame Bovary," and "The Age of Innocence" are all fueled by unfulfilled yearning, as are Shakespeare's sonnets, most operas, and a lot of Rolling Stones songs. "How much do I love you?" wrote Irving Berlin. "How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?" I suppose today someone drunk on love and Google might do a quick search on exactly how deep the ocean is and write a song that goes "My love for you is as deep as the Marianas Trench (36,200 feet)" but it's hard to imagine dancing to it.

It's not just abstract information that's available to us on demand. It's access to our own past, updates we might later wish we'd never gotten. Finding out that the sexy old boyfriend now writes a blog with a title like "The Pot-Bellied Pontificator." Learning that the mean girl from the freshman dorm is now a hugely successful TV producer. Ordering the long-lost favorite childhood LP from eBay and finding that it's awful.

A sense of mystery, of unattainable knowledge, of places and memories and people remaining lost, is part of being human. Google is useful and fun, but there's a lot to be said for unsatisfied curiosity and unfulfilled desire.

Thirty years ago, the summer before my husband and I got married, we drove across the country in an old green Toyota. The car was tiny, wheezing, and so rusted that there was a hole in the floor on the passenger side; I could watch the highway speeding along beneath us. We ate cheap hamburgers and stayed in what the guidebook jauntily called "budget luxury" motels: under $20 a night, in desolate or downright creepy neighborhoods.

We loved it.

One afternoon, somewhere in the South — Tennessee? Georgia? — we passed a series of signs along the highway beckoning us to the next exit, for something called "The Lost Sea." We debated for about five seconds, but it was hot, we were tired, and whatever The Lost Sea was, it sounded like a piece of tourist schlock. We kept on driving. We didn't visit The Lost Sea, and we never found out what it was. A gift shop? An inland salt lake or a habitat for some rare species? Its name and its mystery have stayed with us ever since.

"We should have gone to The Lost Sea instead," one of us will say to the other, after a dud expedition somewhere. Every now and then I am tempted to Google it. Within seconds, I could find out a lot of facts about it: where it is, what it is. I could probably even find pictures. But the point of The Lost Sea, and the charm of it, all these years later, is that it's a paradox. Finding it would be the true loss.

Joan Wickersham's column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is

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