Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lego the idea vs. Lego the product

Not Lego
(Absurdly custom modern Lego part from

In engineering circles (such as the molecular programming conference where I am today), the word "Lego" is commonly used as a synonym for "an elegant and simple basis set whose parts can be arranged to assemble anything." The Lego company should be proud of the fact that their product has inspired at least three generations of engineers to the point where their name is evoked as the gold-standard of an elegant functional basis set.

However, the irony is that while engineers have adopted Lego as representing platonic perfection of elegant engineering, the Lego company itself has apparently abandoned the idea. Lego's current sets are monstrosities of custom non-interchangeable parts as shown in the picture above. The engineering-driven ethos that encouraged creativity to emerge from the arrangement of simple blocks has been replaced by a marketing-driven ethos of product tie-ins and creativity-free model building. At best, today's Lego users are encouraged to build their super-specific models where practically every piece is custom and then tear them down to reuse some of the pieces in non-intended ways. But, this is a far cry from starting from a bucket of rectangular bricks and then dreaming up one's own creations. As a result, Lego might make more profit, but new generations of engineers will not be inspired in the same way as before.

Other toys, such as the supremely well-designed K*Nex, have tried to fill Lego's lost role but the marketing people there have also apparently taken over the company and have infected K*Nex with the same kind of absurd non-generic parts as demonstrated by this Sesame St. tie I found on their site.

Not K*Nex
(Absurdly specific product tie in from

The evolution of these toy companies from pure-nerd-vision to marketing-tie-in-sell-out is a perfect demonstration of how nerd-culture and marketing-culture will forever be in a violent struggle. As far as toys go, we're losing.

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