The thing is that sometimes there are things we just don’t need to know. Theodora Dallas, the juror who was sentenced on Monday to 6 months in jail for causing a trial to be aborted after she Googled the accused and told her fellow jurors what she’d uncovered, probably now realises that better than most.
But if there was a lesson to be learned from her conviction, it wasn’t one that could be discerned from the reporting of her case. Almost every member of the public quizzed by the BBC said that, in Dallas’ position, they would most likely have done the same thing themselves. The threat of jail didn’t seem to be remotely off-putting. And the younger the interviewee, the more baffling they seemed to find the question. Why would you not Google someone?
The obvious answer - because it’s against the law, because everyone is entitled to a fair trial and that means one based on evidence for this case, not on a bunch of people looking over your past behaviour and making a guess on whether you’re a crook or not this time round – didn’t seem that obvious after all.
I wonder if it’s because we have become used to the idea that ignorance is a short-term problem to be fixed with a quick query online. And finding a forgotten or never-known fact is undeniably satisfying, like scratching an itch. But we are less and less willing to accept that there are some categories of information which are not well-served by this attitude. And not just for legal reasons, for aesthetic ones too.
Googling the plot of a Dickens novel will give you the outline of the story. But it won’t give you any insight into why it’s a good book. It’ll just spoil the plot reveals for you, if and when you eventually get round to reading it. And that will make it, for you, a worse book. I like being surprised by a plot twist. I’m happy to read it again and enjoy the different pleasure of knowing what’s coming, but the first time I read something, I want it to be new.
But that’s getting harder all the time. I have now stopped reading book jackets altogether, and declared a vendetta against publishers who think that in order to persuade me to buy a book, they should explain most of the plot on the back cover. It shows contempt for both author and reader, predicated on the entirely stupid belief that you can’t convey what a book is like without simply describing what happens in it.
Not every fact is one we either want or need to know. Unlike Theodora Dallas, we should remember that ignorance can still be bliss.