Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Saddest Place on Earth

I just spent that last few days at Disney Land with my wife, our four year-old daughter, and another family with their own child of three. I hadn't been there for many years and was looking forward to reliving the park through my daughter's eyes. The park itself was fantastic and had been updated significantly with new rides like "Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blaster ride-cum-video game, and some of the old classics like Pirates and the Haunted Mansion still retained their classic touches. Admittedly, commercialism and merchandising have run rampant, with each major ride ejecting joyful consumers directly through shops to run their toddlers through a gantlet of plastic and sweets. The average parent must have to suffer "Daddy, can I get one of these?" at least twice an hour. Sooner or later, everyone must break down under the onslaught. The place really has evolved to become a very efficient machine to separate you from your money while enjoying the process.

But for all that, the rides were fantastic, the food was much improved and better than anyone expected. Everyone had a blast. So far, so good.

But then on the way back to the car, we had to pass one more gantlet, through "Downtown Disney," a rather nice but obviously well-place outdoor shopping mall complete with all the typical name brand chains. Just when I was thinking "how shameless can you get?" I spotted the LEGO store.

I remember thinking, "I can live with all the other crap. They have a LEGO store. THAT one, we can enter. Life is good." You see, LEGOs were a transformative toy for me that unleashed my imagination around the realization that I could build ANYTHING. Spacecraft, moon bases, robots, airplanes, cars, trains, tanks, ... it just went on and on without limit. As I grew up, LEGOs evolved in parallel from the traditional suitcase full of rectangular blocks and simple gears and hinges, to LEGO Technic with cams and struts and beams and pneumatics, and finally to the Mindstorm robotics kits. Later in grad school, I met Mitch Resnick who developed the first "smart bricks" that were the foundations for the Technic and mindstorm kits and thanked him personally. The very name in Danish means "Play well" and in Latin means "I put together." 'nuff said.

So even though my daughter is already pretty well-equipped with an extensive LEGO kit, I was imagining all the cool new things that we were going to be able to build together based on the latest developments out of Denmark. I even ran out ahead of our small group while they were wending their way through the isles of Mickeys and Plutos so I could have some extra time in LEGO nirvana.

What I found, however, quite literally foretells the decline of western civilization. Instead of finding a store filled with great new kits of parts to further propel the imagination, I found a toy store that was almost completely filled with cheap plastic toys. Yes, some of them were kits that you could put together, but for the most part, they were tiny kits with fewer than 30 very specialized parts that could only really be assembled into one or two pre-designed dolls.

Out of a couple hundred yards of shelf space, maybe 4 feet were devoted to less than half a dozen Technic kits (also small specialized versions) and the fantastic new NXT robotics system. Everything else looked something like this:

I remembered reading recently that LEGO had just barely managed to survive a major financial crisis. It would appear that their survival has been buoyed by a transition to selling the crap that most people will buy instead of the transformative tools that, in my opinion, elevated children to explore creativity without limits. It is clear that through a Darwinian process of consumer selection driving survival of the fittest retailer, LEGO has undertaken a forced evolution to supply the market demand for a quick-fix doll to play with immediately at the expense of kits with little instruction that require imagination and creativity. Imagination and industry, it would seem, are becoming commodities in ever shorter supply.

To have this bellwether at Disney Land, a national tourist crossroads, sends a clear signal to me that as a nation, we are becoming less likely to engage our brains and make something. We would rather play with something that is pre-made for us in China, or in Denmark, as the case may be. No wonder the Chinese economy is growing at more than 11% a year while we are stuck below 3% annual growth.

Does that trouble anyone else? It depressed me for the rest of the week.


Anonymous said...

This is something that needs pursuing. You must send these comments to the scereatry of the president of Lego and asking her who would be the right person in the Lego organiztion to contact. Phil Let me know what happened.

Anonymous said...

Do not feel down, to the contrary, this is an opportunity to make a difference. Phil

Anonymous said...

Take heart! I have several friends with older children who are just as addicted to Legos as you were as a youngster. Although they collected their pieces through many of the smaller, specialized kits you describe (though not like the photo), they had more and more pieces to add to their whole collection each time.

At the end of several years of collecting little boxes of Legos that their friends and families could afford for small gifts, each family had a full-to-overflowing box of interchangeable Lego parts with which they could build just about everything.

Maybe the evolution has changed in order to pull in the interest of children who are raised in an era of easy entertainment -- too much t.v., too many video games. The kits come small to cater to their small attention spans, but as they get older and spend more time with the pieces, and consequently collect more parts, they can see more possibilities than they could if you dropped a huge basket of parts in their laps on the first day.

Anonymous said...

Nice observation, Phil. I remember playing with all this stuff when I was a kid too - Legos taught me to build and to innovate, Dominos taught me patience and care when building something, the list goes on...I guess I never realized the real impact that toys had on us as kids - for all I know, that tub of legos at home is why I became an engineer!