Computers & Legos

Computer people (hackers) like me have a strong affinity for lego. I still have my lego collections at home; but legos today aren’t the same; there’s too many big custom pieces. Here’s a quote from a favorite book of mine called “Microserfs,” by Douglas Coupland.

Bug ranted a bit about Lego in the afternoon while we ate Arrowroot cookies and bounced on the trampoline. The air was cold and our breath visible. We were all wearing laundry-day junk clothes and we looked like scarecrows flailing about. Why are we all so hopeless with our bodies?

Bug said, “You know what really depresses the hell out of me? The way that kids nowadays don’t have to use their imagination when they play with Lego. Say you buy a Lego car kit – in the old days you’d open the box and out tumbled sixty pieces you had to assemble to make the car. Nowadays, you open the box and a whole car, pre-fucking-built, pops out – the car itself is all one piece. Big woo. Some imagination-challenger that is. It’s total cheating.”

I got to thinking of my own Lego superstitions. “When I was young, if I built a house out of Lego, the house had to be all in one color. I used to play Lego with Ian Ball who lived up the street, back in Bellingham. He used to make his house of whatever color brick he happened to grab. Can you imagine the sort of code someone like that would write?”

I used to build with mixed colors…” said Bug.

“What do I know?” I said, pulling my foot out of it.

Karla cut in, “I had this friend, Bradley, who had a major Lego collection and I’d cheat, lie, and steal to go to his house and play with it. Then one day Bradley’s mother put his Lego in the bathtub to wash it off. It was never the same – diseased, sort of – stinking, like the water was turning into feta cheese inside the plastic tubes of the locking devices. I think his memories of Lego must be pretty different from my own.”

Bug said, “For designing games, Lego makes a great quickie simulator for figuring out mazes for gaming levels.”

“You’ve designed games before?” I asked.

“I’ve done everything you can do with computers. I’m 31.”

Maybe we underestimate Bug. When I stop and think about him, he’s so full of contradictions – it’s like there’s one big piece of him, that if only I knew it, it would make sense of everything.

Continuing on in another chapter…

Another Presto Log fire in the livingroom. Abe lectured us about his Theory of Lego. It felt like school.

“Have you ever noticed that Lego plays a far more important role in the lives of computer people than in the general population? To a one, computer technicians spent huge portions of their youth heavily steeped in Lego and its highly focused, solitude-promoting culture. Lego was their common denominator toy.”

Nobody was disagreeing.

“Now, I think it is safe to say that Lego is a potent three-dimentional modeling tool and a language in itself. And prolonged exposure to any language, either visual or verbal, undoubtedly alters the way a child perceives its universe. Examine the toy briefly…”

We were riveted.

“First, Lego is onotogically not unlike computers. This is to say that a computer by itself is, well…nothing. Computers only become something when given a specific application. Ditto Lego. To use an Excel spreadsheet or to build a racing car – this is why we have computers and Lego. A PC or a Lego brick by itself is inert and pointless: a doorstop; litter. Made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic, Lego’s discrete modular bricks are indestructible and fully intended to be nothing except themselves.”

We pass the snacks. “Soylent Melts”: Jack cheese and jalapenos microwaved onto Triscuits.

“Second, Lego is ‘binary’ – a yes/no structure; that is to say, the little nubblies atop any given Lego block are either connected to another unit of Lego or they are not. Analog relationiships do not exist.”

“Monogamous?” asks Susan.

“Possibly. An interesting analogy. Third, Lego anticipates a future of pixelated ideas. it is digital. The charm and fun of Lego derives from reducing the organic to the modular: a zebra built of little cubes; Cape Code houses digitized through the Hard Copy TV lens that pixelates the victim’s face into little squares of color.”

If you’ve never read “Microserfs” before – go buy it and read it now. It’s a worthy read.


By Keith Survell

A geek, programmer, amateur photographer, anime fan and crazy rabbit person.