LEGO, Escher, Bach

Monday, 28 January 2008 — 5:08pm

The LEGO brick turned fifty today, which makes it fairly young if you think about it. Personally, I find it quite jarring to reflect on LEGO from a historical perspective at all. As one of the… four activities I have any recollection of doing before the age of seven (the other three: reading Schulz, creating HyperCard stacks on my Macintosh SE, and knowing everything there was to know about dinosaurs), clicking those bricks into place and struggling to pry them apart with my little fingers was something that was always there, and always needed to be done.

It’s not something I ever outgrew, strictly speaking; my interests merely gravitated elsewhere to things no less appealing to the obsessive-compulsive. I have the utmost respect for the people who steadfastly refused to stop playing with LEGO bricks, and it grows every time I see an accomplishment like Andrew Lipson’s sculptures of Escher paintings in impossible spaces, or tributes like “The Knights of the Round Table”. The further apart you are from your childhood, it seems, the higher the tide of nostalgia.

So to glance at this timeline and imagine a world before 1973 (when LEGO was introduced to the United States, six years after that nugget of career advice in The Graduate: “Plastics”), or even 1989 (there was a LEGO without Pirates? inconceivable), is to truly put oneself in a portal to a backwards civilization. A world without LEGO is like a world without refrigerators and flushing toilets.

Yes, I’m aware that disadvantaged communities have neither, so be glad you live where you do—assuming, naturally, that if you have Internet access you probably have access to the fundamental building blocks of, oh, anything. Society. Imperial Star Destroyers. Take your pick.

By now we’re deep into the generation of children who probably don’t remember a LEGO without licensing, rarely pausing to heed the received wisdom about not being too proud of this technological terror they’ve constructed. I’m still surprised that Denmark’s resident Prometheans took as long as they did to observe that in spite of two decades of space-themed sets full of smiling minifigs embarking on missions of peaceful exploration, kids were building their favourite weaponized starships anyway. And boy, was there money to be made.

But as children, we never concerned ourselves too much about matters of business and intellectual property. We just take the world as it is given to us and reshape it as we will. And when what is given to us invites us to create, to bring order to where there once lay a chaos of disconnected elements, to impose ourselves on reality, all the better. It’s positive indoctrination into the lifestyle of technological man, if you ask me; and if you look at the curmudgeonly anti-technological lobby in some branches of philosophy and the humanities, you’ll notice that they never grew up playing with LEGO, now did they.

Or, as Jostein Gaarder once put it in Sophie’s World, his adolescent-fiction tour of the history of thought: “Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?” The answer in the book had to do with the Democritan atomic model: from bricks, the universe. But the way I see it, the true significance of Copenhagen’s greatest export resides in human agency. The agency of children, even—beings we don’t even conceive of, under law, as rational actors capable of responsibility or consent.

Do yourself a favour today. Open a fresh box of LEGO. Sort the pieces. Take or leave the instruction booklet as you will. Build. Feel old, but calm. (Or not so calm, if you can’t locate that one 1×1 nub that has surely rolled across the carpet and dropped into a vent somewhere.)

And to think that earlier this week, I was gaping at children of the late ’80s who had a fair awareness of electronic games, but didn’t know what “NES” stood for.


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One rejoinder to “LEGO, Escher, Bach”

  1. Lego is by far my favorite childhood toy. There was one point where I could construct a number of the sets I had from memory – I liked making what the sets were intended to be, rather than my own creations.

    I can’t wait to watch my kids play with the same bricks I did when I was young. Hopefully I’ll be nice enough to let them do it themselves.

    Tuesday, 29 January 2008 at 10:47am

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