Friday, September 14, 2012

The tyranny of Lego blocks

Every young child learns early in their experience with building blocks that it is easier to destroy than to build. The exception to this rule is Lego blocks. Lego blocks are just as hard (and sometimes even more difficult) to take apart as they are to put together. The reason is because Legos, unlike simple smooth wooden blocks, are designed for specific attachment to other Legos.

Notice the tradeoff involved. Legos can attach securely; but to do so, severe restrictions in their mutual orientation must be applied. Two smooth wooden blocks can be oriented in any manner allowable by gravity. This freedom of orientation is possible between Legos as well, but only if they have not been forcefully joined—and once joined, gravity is irrelevant and unnecessary for their continued association. The free association between two wooden blocks allows each block involved to move any way it wants, relatively unrestricted by the structure. This is of course why constructions built with plain wooden blocks are so vulnerable to the sweep of little sister’s wrecking-ball arms. Structures built with Legos, on the other hand, are extremely durable. But this durability is purchased at the expense of freedom of movement for individual blocks.

Notice also that every projecting nib of every Lego block is emblazoned with the corporate logo.

Legos work through the homogenization of connections, through standardization. Small deviations in uniformity can be catastrophic. When I was a kid, I had a dog that would occasionally get ahold of a loose Lego and chew on it, the deformations caused by her bite marks rendering the block useless.

Three things here. First, the restriction of free association provides the means by which large and elaborate structures are built. Second, this restriction is accomplished only by force. Third, the possibility for ordered structure is orders of magnitude greater for Legos than for smooth wooden blocks, but this increase in order is accompanied by a reduction in the tendency toward novelty. If you want to build a novel structure with Legos that includes specialized shapes and objects not part of the generic block design, you need to purchase a "themed" Lego set that includes customized manufactured components. The potential for novelty is in some sense built in to the open-ended structures constructed with wooden blocks: plain wooden blocks can interface just as easily with a variety of household objects (e.g., dinner plates, beverage containers, etc.) as with each other.

What most anarchists want is the kind of open and unrestrictive associative possibilities found with plain wooden blocks. But how to achieve that in a world where interpersonal communication is increasingly mediated through standardized electronic conduits, where human beings are little more than servomechanisms, where uniform participation in the corporate orgy is obligatory, where we are groomed from infancy to be servile and dependent on the latest consumer pabulum to drip from the teats of power, where our connectivity is coerced, monitored, and enforced by subhuman servomechanisms in uniform licensed to use deadly force? 

I keep coming back to the dog and her deforming bite marks…

The Lego block analogy shows why anarchism and civilization are incompatible. Without standardization, specialization, and forced (non-voluntary) association, there is no way that any of the major institutions of civilization could possibly be assembled in the first place, let alone stand for any length of time.

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