Why Isn’t More Technology Like LEGO?

2012 has been a bumpy year so far, and my mind hasn’t been on the technology game at all.

So I had to ask my 8-year old son, Cole, for a column idea this week.

“Tell everybody about how much I like LEGO,” he says.

That’s not hard to do. He likes LEGO a lot. Like, a lot a lot.

And to be honest, so do I.

Many of us primarily look at LEGO products as toys.

But they can also be considered as a technology unto themselves, as base units for conceiving and building other things.

My son and I have built houses, space ships, people, log cabins, cars, buses, trains, and even metre-long boats with LEGO, either free-form or by using the instructions in sets.

Once I built an iPhone dock out of LEGO bricks.

I’ve heard of architects testing structural concepts with LEGO products.

I’ve read about people who conceive of web sites by playing with LEGO bricks.

I saw a video on YouTube about a life-sized, multi-storey house built entirely out of regular LEGO bricks. The show’s host actually climbed up some stairs to the second floor. He walked around up there and sat on LEGO furniture.

The appeal of LEGO bricks lies in their simplistic use model and the seemingly unlimited use potential.

LEGO bricks feel good in your hand, and are undeniably fun to use.

All you have to do is pick up a couple and stick them together.

But sticking just two bricks together is never enough. The smooth, yet solid feel of the plastic and the ease and firmness with which they fasten to one another are deeply satisfying sensations. A third brick must be applied. Then a few more.

The reward is nearly effortless and instantaneous.

Suddenly, your model is taking shape, perhaps without any original intent.

Is it a truck? A box? A duck? Are you building a table?

Once you start building with LEGO bricks, your imagination effortlessly fires and you’re compelled to continue attaching brick after brick to your model until it’s done.

It might surprise you to learn that this is a 54 year old technology. It’s been around so long that its original patent has expired.

Yet, a LEGO brick manufactured today will still afix itself to one from 1958. My son and I use bricks from my childhood with sets we buy today.

It’s no wonder Cole, along with millions of other people, loves LEGO.

LEGO bricks feel good. They look good.

They’re easy to use and offer instant gratification.

LEGO bricks never fail, and you yourself can hardly fail by using them.

The potential of LEGO bricks is unlimited.

Perhaps most importantly, they have a half-century record of full compatibility; a LEGO brick is never obsolete.

Think of any other technology that upholds even a portion of these qualities.

The fact is, few do. Rather, too many technologies appear to have obsolescence built in. Designed in, I might even argue.

This is largely due to the business model of technology companies. Most are more interested in shareholder return than products, and so are more inspired to produce stuff that will require regular replacement, or that will at best inspire short term interest through a flash of marketing.

The modern technology industry is narcissistic; it cares not about its customers, but about itself. It produces change for change’s sake. It conceives of gadgets and doo-dads for little reason other than a trade show or a shareholder meeting. It is based on obfuscation, self-betrayal, and prizes the goals of marketing over those of meaning.

The LEGO Group, on the other hand, remains privately held by the descendants of the LEGO brick’s inventor, Ole Kirk Christiansen. Their product is in their blood, and has in and of itself become a culture. The entire focus of the LEGO Group is on the continued enjoyment of the brick by its customers.

When the LEGO brick hit the scene it was for good reason, and its introduction was based on a solid set of principles that were defined by its creator. In a nutshell they were long-term and ever-increasing play value, fun for all ages and all year round, high quality, and product longevity.

Simple stuff. But it’s the simple stuff that lasts, obviously.

The original brick is the foundation of a large set of products produced by the LEGO Group, but it alone has stood the test of time and has retained its full value.

So why does my son like LEGO so much? Because it gives to him. It gives him reward, it gives him satisfaction. It gives him fuel for his creativity, and it inspires him. LEGO makes him feel smarter and it helps him grow.

Other technologies demand something of us. They take patience, time, intelligence. Other technologies make us feel like idiots, and hammer down our self-confidence. Other technologies offer a frustrating and constant bait-and-switch strategy that takes our personal and group knowledge and tosses it to the wind as new, “breakthrough” products are forced upon us.

Oh, that more technology companies even tried to make us as happy as LEGO makes my son.

But that would mean making technology about us, as customers and users, rather than about profit margins and shareholder returns.

I fear that’s too much of a cultural shift for any industry to bear.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 20, 2012.