Critical Essay—Plastic Child-Gardening Tools: Lego’s Nostalgia For the Open-Ended Toy

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Kate Maddalena, University of North Carolina Wilmington

#TCVol3Maddalena

 


 

Abstract

LEGO bricks are one example of a kind of "open-ended" toy that promises to be a perfect medium for a child's imagination to mold. But LEGO bricks, like all media, co-constitute the objects they are used to create.This article considers LEGO's evolution into a nostalgic cultural object by tracing (1) the role that open-ended toys played in the development of US approaches to education, (2) LEGO's aggressive patenting practices, which until recently have kept the toy materially proprietary, and (3) marketing practices that capitalize on deterministic narratives to sell a product. The article finally argues that LEGO as technology-in-use incorporates the means of resistance to such narratives in its material protocols.

 


 

Essay

A correct comprehension of external, material things is a preliminary to a just comprehension of intellectual relations.

Friedrich Froebel (as quoted in Froebel's Gifts, Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith)

 

Introduction and Theoretical Frame(s)

The Lego brick first became a “toy for every age” in Denmark in 1954. Now, sixty years later, the Lego Group is still going strong, with more than thirty-two diverse products, including two kinds of bricks, thousands of themed Lego sets, computationally integrated robotics-building technologies, and computer-based virtual environments and games for users to purchase and enjoy. But still I would argue that the Lego brick—the primary unit of the self-named Lego Universe—is a “retro” technology. That is, because of the long list of market-driven technological diversification I’ve referred to above, the brick-level basic-ness that made the company famous is a part of the past, and any return to that idea in the corporation’s marketing campaigns or the users’ reference to the company is an appeal to nostalgia. Nostalgia is, of course, a cultural phenomenon, and it is one culturally and technologically informed way in which we experience the world. Nostalgia is one product of technoculture. And a problem with nostalgia is that it evokes desire for a reality that may not have ever existed in the first place.

In his book Television, Raymond Williams makes an argument for the now-current model of cultural studies methodology, one which requires the scholar to oscillate between two main analytical lenses, both of which imply countless subsets of assumptions, qualification, and considerations: 1) the human force of (largely cultural) intent that drives the invention and implementation of technologies, and 2) the force that the technology itself comes to wield through its (largely material) potentialities and limitations. By virtue of the tension between these two forces, says Williams, a technology-in-use “emerges.” Gilles Deleuze might say that technology-in-use is a “becoming”: as much a cultural process as it is a material object. The work of the cultural critic, then, should be to hold both of those forces at arm's length and consider, if possible, their combined (and also emergent) role in defining the technology in question. That role must be described, in turn, with some model—some way of capturing the technology or medium at a certain point in its becoming. Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker offer a compelling model for such critical judgment—the structure of a control society. In their theory of networks, The Exploit , Galloway and Thacker consider material networks and their constitutive practices in terms of potential sites of control and resistance (they call inbuilt sites of resistance “exploits”). In the pages that follow, I want to apply a similar lens to Lego bricks. The Lego System—the bricks themselves and the sets the bricks comprise—claims interconnection as its primary affordance. Moreover, the Lego business entity—the Lego Group as it has emerged over time—is also a network and exercises control accordingly. Assuming that building toys are media technologies and that and the forces that produce them are tangled in the same, both are necessarily potential structures in a postmodern control society; my analysis will ultimately identify some of these potentialities and locate the Lego brick as it functions as a site of control and/or resistance.

In order to see Lego bricks’ history in the framework I've just described, I will piece together some historical snapshots of Lego and open-ended toys at different cultural moments: 1) a (very simplified) snapshot of modern educational culture 2) a snapshot of Lego's ongoing design and patenting processes, and 3) a snapshot of Lego's marketing practices. This tracing or interweaving of moments is not meant to be a comprehensive history, but rather an archaeology to describe the entanglement of materials, market, and manifest cultural ethic. I will borrow terminology largely from Galloway and Thacker, Deleuze, and one set of terms—“constraint/affordance”—from rhetoric and media studies. In order to avoid confusion, I should define a few terms at the outset. When I talk about constraints and affordances, I mean to refer to the medium itself at the (mostly) material level.  Constraints and affordances have most to do with protocol. Control and resistance, on the other hand, have to do with users interacting with media. If the individual user uses the medium for his or her own new, creative, intentional purpose, the medium becomes a site of resistance. When I discuss resistance, I will also use the Deleuzian term, “line of flight,” which implies the potentiality for a user and the medium operating together to “escape” a repeating, reproducing control structure—as Tamsin Lorraine puts it, lines of flight are “tendencies that could evolve in creative mutations rather than a 'reality' that is an inversion of the past” (Parr, 144). If the individual follows a script or structure dictated by some entity that provides the medium, the medium becomes a site of control. To be clear: constraints, then, are not automatically sites of control—constraints and affordances are located in the medium, control and resistance are created (physically, socially, culturally, personally) by the medium in use.

Ultimately I'll argue that, despite all of the deterministic, closed, and controlling aspects of Lego's market-driven identity, the design of the basic block itself will always provide easily accessible sites of resistance to its users. Though using Lego as an object of analysis is fun, I don't mean for this paper to be a mere exercise in cultural criticism methods. Ultimately, I want to present Lego as a problematic and productive model to consider when designing and discussing media technologies that value lines of flight over the forced replication of existent control structures, be they narrative, digital or material. Lego can serve as a cautionary object-lesson in how top-down approaches to interfaces can ossify the once dynamic and vibrant media that underpin them. It can also serve as a reminder that the “back to basics” form of resistance is always possible in the context of users’ communities of practice.

Some Context: Building Toys as Medium and Technology

Toys, as objects of study, were first the territory of scholarship in pedagogy and developmental psychology and have since become a key area of focus for critical cultural studies. The study of play spawned the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology as we know it. A few cultural studies scholars, most notably Joe L. Frost in A History of Children's Play and Play Environments and the scholars he cites therein, have historicized play, playgrounds, and the intersection of mind and materiality. Other perspectives focus on the re-constitution of culture through and around children’s play with toys and, of course, parents, companies, and media outlets that become entangled with the same. Gary Cross’s (1999) work focuses in part on how the relatively recent proliferation of toys in the post-industrial market mirrors the proliferation of technologies that adults can choose from as tools for living, and their confusion as to what kind of training their children might need for contemporary life. Others, such as Ellen Seiter (1993), in her work on toys in advertising, MG Lord (2004), who has written an “unauthorized biography” of Barbie, and Kathleen McDonnell (1994) who writes about popular culture, parenting, and childhood, concentrate on how toys and television, and even toys on television, come to constitute ways of being—being violent, being sexual, being gendered, and being consumer. Although none come to definitive answers about how parents should negotiate the relationships among toys and play, markets and selves, all agree that toys and toy advertising are not neutral factors in a child’s acquisition and enactment of culture. These perspectives mostly rely on the concept of finished media representations, and focus either on the toy as a representation (e.g. Barbie as a problematic representation of womanhood) or the ecologies of representations (in advertising, packaging, film and television) that surround the toys, rarely on the toys as material media, themselves.

But toys are also media, and deserve attention from scholars in theory of media, rhetoric, and communications. Toys produce virtual worlds—they are media of material virtuality. Until the industrial revolution, the worlds they produced were largely dependent upon the resources available in a given community, and they re-produced, in large part, that community. Mass-produced toys marketed from “without” instead of invented from “within” are part of a network of communication, and the constraints and enablements of the toys co-constituitively shape the cognition, value systems, languages, habits of mind, and aesthetics of the cultures that employ them. It is strange, then, that so few scholars of media theory have applied themselves to toys as media in-and-of themselves. The kind of work I'm imagining has been embarked upon by Theo Van Leeuwen, in an application of his own semiotic theory to Playmobil, but he too observes that toys are treated “all too infrequently” in his field (299).  Scholarship in communication and cultural studies on Lego specifically is scant. One scholar in history of technology, Maike Lauwert, has historicized Lego's branding history, but her treatment does not much consider the technology in question as a material medium, a site for negotiation of control. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, in an article for Kritikos, considers the affordances of the new Bionicle line in contrast to the “old” bricks, but, obviously, his essay speaks little of those original bricks themselves.

Playmobil draws Van Leeuwen because the product design places actors in cultural roles that can be “read” for narrative and “influence the nascent perceptions of the way that social actors operate” (299). Lego could certainly be analyzed for the same features,1 but objects that developmental psychologists call open-ended toys are particularly interesting media because their category implies the opposite: the kind of perfect imparting of “message” into medium that communication scholars are trained to mistrust. They promise, it seems, an empty container for imagination, an opportunity to build worlds. Apart from building blocks, the original interlocking brick technology of Lego are the most famous and successfully branded form of open-ended toy. This paper will assume the brick as the basic unit of ostensibly “open” meaning in the Lego system, and will call that blank-slate illusion into question.

Building Toys and Education

Lego is one particularly successful example of a whole genre of toy I will call building toys.2 Building toys include Lincoln Logs, erector sets, Tinker Toys, Dado cubes, Bristle Blocks, multiple others, and the most basic of all: building blocks.  Though building toys certainly existed in situ anywhere anything could be stacked, a child was bored, and an adult was either resourceful or neglectful enough to allow the child to make use of his or her environment, I would argue that the mass-production of systematized sets marked a change. The change coincided, of course, with the availability of technologies of mass-production, mass communication and mass-marketing. Instead of toys and modes of play emerging from situated (geographically, geologically, culturally and even personally situated) sites of invention, toys and modes of play could be “broadcast” from the top down.3

At the same time that toys began to be mass-produced—i.e. during the industrial revolution—educational systems in Europe and the U.S. were being similarly homogenized to allow for increased student populations due to child labor laws. Schools for very young children answered a demand, of course, for a place to keep them while parents labored (the nannies, tutors, and governesses hired for individual children by the ruling classes were hardly realistic options for a newly emerging middle-class). A Scottish teacher, Robert Owen, is credited with an early preschool model (Frost), but the Child Garden (Kindergarten) was conceived of in 1828 in Hungary by Theresa Brunszvik (Frost) and taken up by by Fredrich Froebel, who is most often credited in American histories of education. Borrowing from the idea of the innocent state of nature chez Rousseau, Kindergarten was to be a child-focused, child-driven environment where social development was paired with intellectual exploration. 

But what concerns us for now, in terms of the Lego story via buidling toys, is Froebel's pairing of materiality and play with cognition and learning. Froebel was a teacher and a scholar of teaching, and his works—Education of Man (published in German in 1826 and in English in 1888), Mother Songs (1885 and 1895), Pedagogics of the Kindergarten (1895 with an English version published in the same year) Education by Development (1899), and several coincident published volumes of letters—were quickly reproduced, commented upon, and implemented in Western Europe and the U.S. (Wollons). The building block was formalized and theorized in Education of Man as one of twenty “gifts” to be given to developing toddlers for teacher-directed play. The blocks were divided into groups by different forms and their various affordances; other gifts included a soft felt balls, geometric colored tiles, sewing kits, modeling clay, and tinker-toy-esque rods for 3-dimensional graph-like shape constructions. Froebel's theory also proposed a fixed order in which each type of gift should be “presented” to the child in order to promote healthy, “correct,” and “consecutive” development through sense perception (Brosterman).  Froebel’s system was adopted and adapted—made much less prescriptive and teacher-driven, in fact—in Montessori schools and American kindergartens.4 The Milton Bradley toy company acquired patent rights to the gifts, began producing them around 1898 (Wollons), and have continued to be the U.S. source for building blocks and other “educational toys” into the twenty first century.

Critical historiographical perspectives of education have noted that Kindergarten in its final, stable expression (manifest in the U.S. by 1950) mainly served as a form of ideological reification, making them a site of control: in the U.S. version of the Child Garden, children were ultimately, albeit gently, inculcated with the school culture in which they were expected to participate for at least 10 years of their lives. Moreover, they were “made citizens,” a role they were expected to fill until death (Baader). Froebel's contributions to the development of the Child Garden has also been problematized—it was an idea “stolen” from Hungary by Germany, from a woman by a man (Muir), etc. All of these critical conversations resonate here because they press upon the incorporation of new conceptions of existent systems into those very systems—the reactions of power to acts of resistance.

But Froebel's model for play-driven education and Wiggin and Smith's implementation of it certainly also fall under the category of resistance—a way of responding to control culture by enabling lines of flight. Emergent kindergarten curricular prescriptions for the “use” of the object gifts insist upon freedom to the point of almost unbelievable idealism. The material objects themselves—the “real” connection between the material world and the intellectual one, take on an almost talismanic power. Archibald-Smith and Douglas-Wiggin quote Bacon in the preface to their 1895 volume: “The education of the senses neglected, all after-education partakes of a drowsiness, a haziness, an insufficiency, which it is impossible to cure” (11). The proponents of Kindergarten had a proto-Pink Floyd's Wall message; they wanted to provide sites of creative invention—lines of flight, sites of resistance—rather than simply practice control and rote reproduction of existing structures. 

Lastly, it is important to mark the Gifts' entry into the market and Mitlon Bradley's control of that market. By making these open sites of resistance material, and by incorporating the material into a system, Froebel et al. also prepared those objects to be homogenized, marketed, and commodifed.  More importantly to the Lego story, they prepared a culture in which open-ended toys were valued as tools of knowledge-building. “[The Gifts]” Douglas-Wiggin writes, “are all accessories—they are of no more importance than the leaves to the tree; if time and stress of weather strip them off, the life current is still there, and new ones will grow in their places” (6, Preface). The clumsy analogy seems to refer directly to Lego—certainly a new “leaf” on the tree of open-ended toys, the only building toy that even approaches Froebel's blocks in terms of popularity and ubiquity.

Lego: Early Design and Patent Acquisitions

Lego started much later, in 1932, when Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish maker of wooden toys, named his toy company. The name came from the Danish “leg godt,” or “to play well,” and most popular sources agree that the translation of the latin “lego,” which, contextualized correctly, can mean “I put together,” or “I assemble” was a coincidence discovered after the name was chosen.5 Those claims make sense, since the company didn't make toys of assemblage at first; Christiansen made wooden toys—pull-toy ducks, cars, trucks, yo-yos, and the like—throughout World War II until 1947.

In 1946 Kiddicraft designer Hilary Harry Fisher Page attended the Daily Graphic Plastics Exhibition in Dorland Hall on Regents Street in London, and his brief description of his presentation, “Plastics as a Medium for Toys,” was published as part the exhibition catalogue. In it, Page recommends plastic—a material that won't break easily or lose its shape and color—as a new and ideal material for toy production. Page also urges toymakers to seek expert advice as they adapt designs to plastics: “Toy manufacturers entering the plastics field for the first time should employ the services of a really good plastics designer who will be conversant with possible snags,” he writes; “Plastics can represent the ideal material for toys for babies and young children, but the great possibilities of these materials will be lost if the market becomes flooded with badly designed plastic toys which will not stand up to the requirements of the nursery” (Webpage; reprinted at HilaryPageToys.com).

In 1947, in Denmark, Christiansen bought a plastic injector mold and began making plastic toys, including a truck he designed that could be taken apart and put back together. More importantly, in 1947 O.K. Christiansen and his son, Gotfried, also received a sample of a product called “Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks” designed by Page.6 Page held patents in the U.S. and Britain for bricks that we would recognize as Lego bricks today; they had the cylindrical welts on the top and vertical slits in the short sides that would hold windows and hinged doors. The Christiansens put their new plastic molding machine to use, made a few changes in Page's model to fit the metric standard (Renaud), and snatched up a Danish patent for an “Automatic Binding Brick.”  Over the next five years, they worked to improve upon Page's blocks and were careful to patent each new piece. By 1954, the “Lego Mursten System im Spiel,” (or “Lego Masonry System of Play”) was fully developed, patented in Denmark (31 patents in the total set), and ready to be marketed. Lego's first catchphrase, printed underneath a Mario-like workman in footie overalls and carrying a Lego brick the size of his torso, was “das spielzeug fur jedes alter”: “the toy for every age.”

Hilary Harry Fisher Page, the British designer of the Kiddicraft blocks, committed suicide in 1957 after a few attempts to sue the Christiansens for patent violations. Almost nothing is known about his death; his widow refuses to respond to interview requests, and Danish law does not require that the detailed records of the cases be made public (HilaryPageToys.com; Lithgow). A patent case argued, lost, and then appealed by Tyco in a Hong Kong court in 1958, the year after Page's death, found that “the present day brick is essentially the same product as it was [in Page's design] in 1949” (Lithgow). Lego's patent disagreements continue to this day. Chistiansen's admission to being “inspired” by the Kiddicraft blocks is the preferred framing device for stories about the legal battles in the popular news media—most notably multiple cases against Tyco and Mattel (who was later bought by Tyco). The issue in question is what others call monopoly on the design, and how different a design has to be to not infringe upon Lego's patents. Lego is also notorious for arguments with the patent offices themselves over how much of a change in brick design warrants a new patent.  It is ironic, of course, that Lego, since its inception, has worked to prevent the very kind of patent predation it was founded upon.

The year of Page's suicide, 1957, was when Ole's son Gotfried became sole owner of the Lego company, bought out Kiddicraft, and also changed the brick design. In the beginning, the bricks looked like what we now know as Lego bricks, but the underside was empty.  The “locking” depended on the friction between the outer curve of the cylindrical protrusions on the top of the bricks and the outside edge of the brick on top. Gotfried added the tubes underneath in 1957, and the interlock became tighter. The patent for the brick we now recognize as Lego was filed in 1958. In the United States in that same year—1958—NASA was founded, and Texas Instruments patented the microchip.7 The brick was patented in other countries over the next decade: in Germany and Austria (1960), Switzerland (1962), The United Kingdom (1961), the U.S. and Canada (1962), and South Africa (1968). Sampsonite bought the rights to produce Lego play systems in the U.S. and Canada in 1962, but the original Danish company bought Sampsonite out in 1973.

I don't mean to make any kind of definitive or heavy-handed value judgment about Lego's patent history. The world of business and its relationship to invention and proprietary design is a morally murky one by nature, of course. But I do want to press upon the story I've told above—a story of cutthroat capitalism—in contrast to the tale of a happy Scandinavian family business that changed the sleepy town of Bilkund, Denmark into a design and commerce center. The latter tale is what the Lego corporation itself puts forward on its website and in its (corporately approved-of and corporately funded) The Ultimate Lego Book and The World of Lego Toys. This more popular, more broadly disseminated story stresses the triumph of individuality, creativity and good design; the “genius” of the Christiansens and the material perfection of the blocks themselves seem to have propelled the Lego corporation to its current popularity. Lego's version leaves out a human force—call it enterprise, business savvy, or aggressive predation—that co-constitutes the real secret of Lego's success. To say that the product itself contains that secret is determinism (albeit an idealistic determinism); at least half of the push was, and still is, a very human and intentional manipulation of power. Lego's patent story also echoes the story of Kindergarten's inception—an idea credited to one and arguably “stolen” from another. Like children themselves, the trappings of childhood are perceived to be but are in fact far from innocent.

The Encroachment of Control: Lego Marketing and Emerging Product Identity

Lego Advertisement: What it is is beautiful

Fig. 1: Lego
Advertisement:
What it is
is beautiful

Original 1981,
reprinted in
“The Society
Pages,2009

 

Fig 1. This ad focuses on Lego's material protocol as a site of resistance, invention, and creativity: lines of flight.

Hogwart's Lego Set

Fig. 2: Hogwart's
Lego Set

“Toy Shelf,” 2010

Fig 2. This ad, for the “Harry Potter” product set for Hogwarts school, illustrates semiotic and material “closed-ness”: the medium can serve as a site of control.

The final block for me to interlock into my brief tracing is the less “open” side of Lego's identity: the corporation's ongoing marketing and the way that marketing has affected the product's design—that is, the controlling side of the control/resistance coin. For the purposes of considering the basic brick, like Froebel's gifts, mostly a site of resistance, I will assume that some of what U.S. Kindergarten culture purports is true, specifically

  1. that play is important to cognitive development, 
  2. that play with building toys (which are media) helps children develop schemas in several different, important cognitive and intellectual fields (i.e. material and abstract schemas—motor skills, mathematics, symbolic language), and most importantly
  3. that self-guided interaction with such toys/media might produce new ways of thinking and being, channel new power to the site of the individual child, enable lines of flight and resistance to control.

Market-related design changes, I will argue, have acted to close off many such potentialities.

As soon as Lego systems began being sold in the U.S., their marketing campaign made a two-pronged appeal to U.S. consumers. The first prong consisted of pitching Lego as a perfect educational toy for the Kindergarten culture I've described above—a vehicle for the imagination. Lego published its first “Idea Book” in 1963, The Big Lego Book in the U.S. in 1968 (a translation from the German volume published in 1966) and subsequent “idea books” have continued to come out over the years (peeron.com). In a similar move that privileges the resistance-supporting protocols of Lego technology, the instruction booklets in sets all come with alternative structures and vehicles that might be built with the same set. But the second prong involved the exact opposite move: to both protocologically and semiotically fix the toy's possible uses and meanings by selling model “kits” and themed “sets.” Indeed, the dichotomy seems to trouble the Lego corporation's very sense of itself, as Lauwert notes in her history, since the name “Legoland” (privileging narrative) was changed to “Lego System” (privileging protocol) in 1992. Lego has capitalized on both identities since the beginning of their sales to U.S. markets.

The deterministic slide started as many of the deterministic-type media histories seem to: with mobility. In 1961, wheel pieces that could be attached to the ends of two-nub-width bricks were introduced. (Lego users will likely recognize a later, more specialized piece that uses a metal axle through a brick, as versions of it come in mighty handy for building any small vehicle out of Lego bricks). Sampsonite's Space Rocket was launched in 1963 and seems obviously tied to the timbre of national identity at the time—Kennedy's “we choose to go to the moon” speech was given in 1962. I put these two already chronologically close moments in Lego history together because they mark the beginning of two veins of determinism that would continue to a most teleological conclusion: the wheels began to “determine” Lego technologically/protocologically, and the rocket begins  a habit of “determination” through semiotics and narrative. The 1964 train set, a more generic, universally appealing rather than historically situated offering than the rocket, required even more specialized pieces: an electric motor, a track, couplings, etc. I emphasize this specialization because it perfectly illustrates an aspect of Galloway and Thacker's discussion of network nodes as sites of control. “If any single node  experiences greater freedom from control [in terms of system protocol], it is most likely due to a greater imposition of control on the macro level” (73). That is, the special pieces required by the Lego train made the Lego corporation more able to market a train, but it made the set user less able to use that piece—a piece of track, for instance—for anything other than what the corporation intended. The Space Rocket, though it did not require special pieces, began a vein of semiotically determined packaging. It was sold to be a thing—to tell a certain story, to contain a certain meaning.

In 1967,8 Duplo was introduced—a Lego set made in larger format, with curved, “softer” nubs. The Duplo decision was clearly a market-driven one; other, more toddler-friendly connecting blocks were being introduced into the market, and Lego made a move (specifically to challenge a Tyco patent) to keep rights to anything that remotely resembled Lego. At the same time, Lego designers strove to expand their market territory in an older age group, as well. The 1977's Technic go-cart, a result of ten years's worth of design and testing, was the first model of the sophisticated sort that would become Bionicles and the like. Though the Technic, Bionicle, and Mindstorm lines are arguably not Lego bricks if we define Lego as a medium by brick affordances and protocols, they are Lego in terms of the branding, and they certainly helped Lego secure a seemingly impregnable domain—called “monopoly” by many plaintiffs—in the toy market.

On the side of narrative and semiotics, the “minifig,” (the prototypical Lego Man) was introduced a year later, in 1978. The minifig made Lego able to place characters in the virtual worlds of the themed sets. The space-themed sets were introduced in 1979, followed quickly by a castle in 1984 and pirates in 1989. If we consider each of these sets in sequence as a case study, we can see a narrative and meaning-driven semiotic determinism of the sets that started with the Sampsonite Space Rocket. The 1979 space-themed sets—most notably the “Galaxy Explorer” and the “Mobile Tracking System,” which fantasized manned versions of the Mars and Jupiter probes that were actually leaving Cape Canaveral at the time—are still basic Lego Bricks. The hull of the Explorer has square edges; the blocks that make the bridge are as bulky and pixellated as an Atari screen. The specialized blocks that come with the sets are few and simple: a flat landing strip for the Explorer, satellite receiver dishes for both, window-plates in red and blue transparent plastic, and helmets and simple insignia on the mini-figs. Consider next the Castle. The structure itself is actually less specialized than that of the space set (although bricks with carved-in arched windows do count), but the characters and their accessories are more elaborate: horses (which are only Lego pieces by virtue of the nubs in their torsos, where a very specialized saddle piece can fit, and female-piece protocol in their feet), flags, jousting poles, knight's helmets, swords, and shields (all of which have no brick-related attributes at all). Lastly, the pirates on their first nubby little treasure island had cannons, monkeys, trees (with brick-nub attachments), boats, oars, a Jolly Roger flag, a treasure chest full of little doubloons, pirate-style head kerchiefs, and their little mini-fig faces were painted with stubble and eye-patches. The sets were becoming more and more linked to narrative and “meaning”—to predetermined cultural actors in culturally determined situations. Moreover, the actors and situations were Anglo-Euro normative (i.e. white), but that is another vein of criticism for another paper.  Here I mean to focus on the use of packaging and semiotic marking—a push to one kind of determinism—to market the toy.

In 1984, Lego began its business relationship with McDonalds, who offered a truck, ship, plane, or helicopter in Happy Meals. The first Happy Meal Lego prizes were markedly not materially determined—they were made mostly from basic bricks.  But the television ad promoting the meal begins, seemingly oddly, with Grimace and Ronald McDonald between two suits of armor, and the Happy Meal itself advertises the Lego Castle, which came out the same year—the Happy Meal toy was designed as a gateway to a large, expensive product. Even more nefarious evidence of explicit control, by my lights, is the fact that a 6-year-old girl had to ask for the boys' Happy Meal to get her own Lego helicopter; otherwise she would get a meal with Barbie fashion accessories. The Lego/McDonald's relationship continues to this day, and the format follows the same formula: the toys inside pertain to a larger system or set, and the Legos go in the boys' meal.  The latest iteration of this arrangement was the “Lego Racer” Happy Meal (girls got American Girl dolls). The gendered determinism of Happy Meal choices is one of the most troubling tendencies in Lego advertising, and follows the blatant, ubiquitous, and, according to Seiter (1993), probably unavoidable trends that she describes in her analysis of gender-targeted advertising for children.  And though Seiter might argue that placing Lego as the male balance in a pair of gendered options may not be as egregiously evil or damaging as it seems, it certainly conflicts directly with the open-ended ethos of Lego’s Technica-oriented advertising claims.

If you visit a Lego store now—online or in person—you'll see a seemingly inevitable culmination of this semiotically deterministic, narrative-oriented type of Lego marketing, and a similar extension of the materially determined, specialized-part-dependent Technica, as well.  On the narrative/semiotic side, 1999 marked the first pairing of an existing popular narrative and its contingent corporate superpower—Star Wars—with a Lego set, and thus began a very profitable flood of Hollywood-themed spinoff sets. Indiana Jones, SpongeBob Squarepants, Toy Story, Harry Potter, and Prince of Persia have followed. The movie-related sets are only five of 32 “product” categories on the Lego home page; the product categories are all more or less discrete “worlds” which either semiotically or materially/protocologically exclude toys from other categories. (I say more or less since, yes, a knight from “Kingdoms” might interact—to great effect, in fact—with a ninja from “Ninjago,” but neither can interact on the level of material protocol with the “Bionicle” product, or the entirely digital “Design by Me” software package or “Lego Universe,” the massive multi-player online game.)

There is other evidence of the market-driven ossification of Lego's corporate identity into selling a “made thing” instead of a “thing to make with.” Most obvious is their outright marketing of, well, made things: t-shirts, stuffed animals, theme-park packages, sheets and curtains—the list of “merch” is endless. Moreover, Lego's next step from commodification has been codification—in keeping with another of Galloway and Thacker's description of the control society.  They observe that a future critical consideration should be not just the “alienation of real social relations into objects, but the abstraction of abstract code from objects” (134). Two of Lego's major pushes are the “Design by Me” line, which abstracts Lego's material protocols into a digital interface, and a virtual Legoland, the “Lego Universe,” an MMPOG where players build with digital/virtual blocks. Lastly and most obviously is the material evidence that lines of flight alone are not profitable: in 2000, Lego discontinued it's last “universal” Lego set. Since then, you can't buy a new box full of simple, basic bricks, wheels, windows, and disturbingly uniform pine trees (Technica). (You can buy Lego by the piece at the store, however.) In 2007 Lego closed its last factories in the U.S.—located in Connecticut for nearly 50 years—and moved them to Mexico (msnbc.com). Self-directed play succumbs to market-driven commerce.

The Rest of the Story: Built-in Resistance?

Although the rush-to-determined-end described above seems unequivocal, I want to argue that, because of Lego's material affordances and evidence of the medium in practice, lines of flight survive. Lego is still—and is perhaps even mostly—a site of resistance. The brick itself is what Galloway and Thacker (2007) would call the “exploit.” The interlocking technology seems to reify a worldview of potential connection, of reinvention, to constantly vex any real control at the level of user-medium interface.

First of all, Lego is a medium of play, and inventive play engenders invention by testing predetermined, arbitrary, and non-material constraints. As I contemplated this article and planned another, more involved ethnographic study of Lego as an extended project, I asked several pilot interviewees to remember which Lego sets they possessed and how they maintained them. One remembered a friend who was “uptight” (his words) about keeping his space sets in their own boxes and not mixing pieces. A far more preponderant reply was that pieces were mixed and matched to make worlds that the corporation hadn't imagined. In preparation for the ethnography, I also visited the North Carolina Lego Users Group (NCLUG) in the Hobbies and Crafts building at the NC State Fair, where docent and 20 year user group member Will Stroh informed me that NCLUG required all entries to the Fair exhibit be original creations without protocol instructions9 (personal interview, October 15, 2010). Seventeen international Flickr photo sharing groups, 6 of which are in the ten largest Lego-related groups on Flickr, stipulate that group submissions be “original,” creations, “not just sets” (Flickr.com). These last two examples imply that a relatively large and dedicated Lego community of practice recognizes and rewards conscious resistance. NCLUG’s requirement that competitors enter only original work into competition is typical of Lego creative competition around the world. International First Lego Leagues (FLLs) encourage real engineering and problem solving, not the re-creation of pre-designed sets.

Then consider the narrative positioning of Lego minifigs and product worlds. Though the narrative-related Hollywood-spinoff sets are more semiotically and protocologically “fixed,” at least three of the narratives that Lego has chosen—Harry Potter, Batman, and Star Wars—qualify as postmodern myths about resistance. Such an argument is a rather weak defense of the company’s obviously market-based decisions, however. Again, to find real resistance, one must look to communities of users: narratively determined Hollywood spinoff sets have become a medium of narrative remix and folkloric iteration on Youtube. The most famous of these stop-action sequences uses a minifig Darth Vader to animate an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine called “Death-Star Canteen,” but the Lego Youtube film shorts are numerous enough to constitute a whole genre: the new “Kingdoms” knights re-animate Monty Python's Holy Grail a song at a time, “Prince of Persia” minifigs lampoon the film itself, and minifigs re-enact famous plays in World Cup Soccer games, moments in history, etc. (Youtube.com).

Pulling back from the user-medium interface sites of resistance, the Lego corporation has recently made two specific choices at the level of advertising and business practice that better suit the worldview I've located in their original product design; the ads are nostalgic ones, as I argued at the beginning of this article. A recent ad campaign by a South African designer, Blattner Brunner—beautiful, designy, and clearly meant for the Dwell set—features super-simple Lego  constructions made from basic bricks only casting shadows of the larger, more complicated machines they represent (Trendland). In the same vein, the design collective Studiocanoe of Cornwall, England, recently created a web-video advertisement called “build anything.” Simple Lego constructions are held by the cameraman's hand, arms-length self-portrait style, to look as though they “belong” in the landscape—a bristle-tree in a forest, a motorcycle parked on a street, a table with Lego flowers on a sidewalk (Studiocanoe). Both of these representations of the company identity emphasize a nostalgic return to what was ostensibly the company’s original ethos: the power of the user to make worlds, not buy stories or follow instructions to produce predetermined products. Less nostalgically and perhaps most compellingly, the Lego Group's general response to appropriation and redistribution of their digital property has broken from their prickly precedent with material patents. The first Mindstorm RCX microprocessor, which animated the Mindstorm robot line, was disassembled and its design revealed on the web, leading to open-source versions of software that would run on it (Penenberg). The Lego group did not pursue legal action.10 Now, Lego continues to value and pursue compatibility with Linux operating systems, and even rewards new “homemade” iterations of software compatible with theMindstorm (Tapscott).

A Final Note on Lego as Media: Digitality and Open-source Ethos

Is Lego truly “open-ended,” or not? For media theorists, the Lego Group’s strategic partnerships with open-source software systems and its albeit symbolic gestures towards what new media scholars might call an open-source ethos beg a comparison between the ethereal, computational new media and material media that function in many of the same ways. Lego bricks’ protocols—the binary male/female stacking design, the practice of building complex systems from simple parts—are in many ways analogous to logic-based machines, and the power of the toy as a medium comes from its recombinatory affordances, as does the power of the media we more typically call digital. Because Lego bricks are open-ended and built objects are user-produced, the company’s Technica-oriented arguments, as well as user-communities would seem to align Lego with the open-source movement. And some of the advertising issues with company identity and ethos resonate with trends that rhetorical code studies scholar Kevin Brock (2013), for one example, has observed in ethos production in the documentation and product presentation of open-source software companies’ online materials. The patent history in this paper, however, as well as the simple issue of a proprietarily determined lack of interoperability (e.g. a Lego brick cannot connect to a Lincoln Log), argue for placing Lego under an umbrella with proprietary (material) software. Media theorists should continue to compare media in seemingly divergent context—like physical toys and electronic tools—to tease out ways of being and knowing that are coherently and often invisibly instantiated across platforms and populations.

 

Notes

  • 1. And in Lego's case, we might delete “nascent,” and insert “emergent,” as many Lego users do not discard the medium as they age.
  • 2. Web sites that sell educational toys are my source for the the name for this genre. Jim Hughes, self-made Lego scholar and designer of the web site “Technica,” calls the whole Lego line “technica” (to avoid offending a trademark, I think).
  • 3. The shift to a “broadcast” model for modes of play is not the main subject of this paper, but it would certainly be a productive focus for further historiography. It would be interesting to trace the dissemination of toy designs (for homemade toys) before and after mass production, as well.
  • 4. Froebel's ideas came to the United States via Harvard (they were later criticized by John Dewey at Columbia, who argued for actual rather than virtual play and instruction) (Frost 89). One of the most popular versions of Froebel was Froebel's Gifts, translated by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith. A burgeoning academic interest—amongst Dewey and others—in the study of play, the real need for a working curriculum to occupy very young students, and the enthusiasm of young women teachers for Froebel's ideas are all credited with the success of the Kindergarten across the United States (Frost). Historian Meike Sophia Baader argues that a focus on “making citizens” made Froebel more influential in the U.S. than he was in Germany, where his teacher, Johann Pestalozzi, is more often cited as the founder of the Kindergarten educational system. Pestalozzi's approach emphasized the family, argues Baader, while Froebel's system emphasized the community.
  • 5. It should be noted that “assemble,” here, refers to making a group, not building a structure (this translation mine). The serendipity of the coincidence holds, however: Christiansen had considered the word “Legion” as the name for his company. (The Latin root of that word, the same that makes for the first coincidence, is clear. So Christiansen got it both ways without knowing it.)
  • 6. I cannot make a claim here, for I can find no evidence, but I must submit a theory: I think that the Christiansens were either present at the Regent Street exhibition or got word of it, requested information from Page in the guise of the expert advice his pamphlet urges toymakers to seek when pursuing production in plastic, received an innocent and trusting correspondence which included the Kiddicraft design as an illustrative example, and then severed contact with Page.
  • 7. I mention this because I would like to hold those strands of history apart from the larger weaving, since later I will later focus on Lego's cultural fit in the digital age as it is being experienced in the U.S. NASA, of course, brought us velcro and ballpoint pens, items clearly consonant with the Lego worldview as I will describe it later, and their astronauts provided a cultural “signified” for Lego's first marketing theme in the 1980's.
  • 8. The same year that Mr. Robinson told The Graduate Benjamin that “the future [was] in plastics.”
  • 9. This applied to structures only, of course—minifigs and “characters” were present in the displays. I saw a castle with knights from the 1984 set, but the castle itself was a new iteration—an entirely different structure.
  • 10. Though the line here between enabling resistance and perpetuating control is very fine, as a technology patent consultant quoted in Forbes says, "Lego should encourage open-source and even provide them with tools and applications. Their best customers are, in essence, willing to work for them for free"(Penenberg, 1999).


References

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Biography

 Kate Maddalena is Assistant Professor of Professional Writing and Technical Communication at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She received her PhD in 2014 from North Carolina State University’s Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. Her interests include media theory, science and technology studies (STS), and technical communication. She is particularly interested in how toys and “manipulatives” (like LEGO and molecular models) are used in knowledge production. Her work has been published in Theory, Culture and Society and Theory of Science/TeorieVedy.

 

© 2013 Kate Maddalena, used by permission


Technoculture Volume 3 (2013)