How I kicked the habit: life, Lego and everything
August 24, 2012 1 Comment
There is a subculture out there, an underground movement, that I got caught up with a few years ago. This, in brief, is the story of my entrapment, and my eventual escape.
For a few years, I hung around the fringes of the AFOL cult – the self-styled ‘Adult Fans of Lego’. I learnt their ways of doing, read their books, used their on-line forums and Lego-hunting resources. It was like stepping into a parallel world. There are a lot of AFOL members out there, but most keep their plastic brick obsession secret, for fear of the ridicule of the grown up world: “what, you play with Lego!?!”
Foolishly or otherwise (probably churlishly in my case) I didn’t keep my obsession secret. I mentioned it to those who (I thought) were interested, and quickly changed the subject whenever I realised that – actually – they weren’t. But, more often than not people seemed to ‘get it’. Their eyes would look skyward in reminiscence and a smile of recalled childhood play would briefly pass across their face.
AFOLs have a way of describing the re-discovery of Lego in adulthood – they portray it as an emergence from an adult darkness, as an enlightenment. The adult life before Lego is portrayed as a personal dark age in which the joy of Lego had been forgotten, lost somewhere along the path to maturity. That moment of re-discovery, is an epiphany, a step forward into the light of a contented Lego-embrace.
In my case, it was a combination of events that led me back to the joy of multi-coloured plastic building bricks. As I recall it now, looking back from a perspective that finds me (sort of) back in the darkness Lego-wise, the paths were first sown by my (then very young) kids being given small Lego sets as presents. Helping them to put these together reacquainted me with that distinctive combinatory urge that spills out whenever two or more Lego bricks are to hand. I just fall, even now post-rehab, into fidgeting with them, cycling through the available combinations, innately judging some creations as more successful than others (there is an aesthetics by which to judge even the most simple Lego assemblages).
Then, a short while later my wife and I realised that our house was drowning in pieces of toys and related plastic tat strewn by our kids. What to do?
The initial adult urge was to thrown all this stuff away and limit the kids to a handful of ‘quality’ and sturdy, single-component toys. But then it struck us, get rid of the broken tat and move towards a toy that’s meant to be broken (in the sense of having no single form). Replace this dead toy detritus with Lego…
So, we logged onto ebay and started looking for second hand Lego. That was the start of my fall headlong into endless nights of Lego hunting. A couple of kilo (yes, on ebay Lego can be bought in big amorphous piles) would have been sufficient for our needs, but this bright shiny world sucked me in, much to my wife’s increasing frustration. I scrutinized fuzzy pictures of Lego lots, trying to work out what sets might be included, fragmentised, within these heaps. I would look for rare shapes or colours sticking up out of the pile. In a spririt of ‘reverse engineering’ I could then use online resources to identify the part numbers of those pieces and, with online directories of Lego sets work out what riches these fragments might bode (each Lego piece and every set has unique serial numbers which facilitate this obsessive archaeology).
I also got hooked on hunting particular set families – I had a Japanese book, Lego Museum 1, to guide me. It was written in Japanese, which meant I couldn’t actually read it – but the pictures, the dates, the serial numbers, countries of issue and the taxonomic curation of these sets into distinct genealogies gave me everything I needed.
Suffice it to say that for a few years, my obsessive Lego hunting was problematic within our household. Yes, the kids enjoyed playing with it, but they preferred new Lego – they wanted to play with sets that they saw in the shops, sets that were themed around films they knew (a canny move by Lego in recent years). They didn’t need Lego by the kilo, and much of what arrived sat in boxes unused.
But my thrill was in the pursuit – particularly getting a set for the fraction of the price that it would have cost when ‘new’. Often it would be possible to ‘win’ sets on ebay that had been played with (or perhaps never touched by) a child 25 years before. These would arrive (with another knowing look from the postman) at our house complete and with original packaging in pristine condition. Most ‘collectors’ at that point would make the model and then put it and the packaging safely to one side. But I found my biggest thrill was actually in (a few months later) smashing up the model and surrendering its pieces into this ever growing mound of homogenised Lego bricks. It was the sheer abundance of this plastic that thrilled me most.
The attentive reader, will have noticed that I’ve said very little so far about actually building stuff with this Lego mountain. We did, and one summer I even painstakingly sorted (a fraction of) the Lego mountain by colour and shape, as a prelude to some planned factory-scale world building project. But it never happened, there was never enough time. Much like people buy books but never get around to reading them, it was the thrill of hunting and acquiring that drove me on. This for me was a warped accumulation drive, stuff for the sake of stuff. For this reason, I can’t claim to have ever fully joined the AFOL clan. Most of these people acquire their Lego in order to do something with it, and there are some amazing examples out there of Lego engineering and creativity.
During one family conversation my wife suggested that I try adjusting my ‘hobby’ to virtual-hunting, something akin to ‘fantasy football’. She suggested that I could pretend to bid on items, that I could thereby render this pursuit an abstract one in which I was not actually spending money or bringing more plastic bricks into the house. It was a good suggestion, but didn’t feel right. Actual and virtual hunting aren’t the same. In particular, virtual-hunting offered me no ‘rush’ feeling either at the moment of a winning bid or the opening of a packet to find verification of my Lego archaeology skills.
Looking back, I think this obsession just burnt itself out. Life was too busy, I was fed up with treading on Lego pieces and my well-worn attempts to justify my continued hunting weren’t even convincing me anymore. I started a new job and other distractions and channels of ferreting around opened up. Intellectually I can see the suitability of a virtual approach to such hunting, but I don’t think that would have worked out for me. Too much of my obsession was wrapped up in a desire to create a sheer accumulating of this stuff, this mountain of potentiality, a plastic monument to my hunting and research endeavours.
But I have no regrets about this period. I learnt a lot (and not just about Lego serial numbers). First, my eyes were opened to the power of on-line enthusiast communities, the ability of fans to organise and circulate bodies of knowledge and practice in a mutually-supporting manner. This interest led me on into my studies of the on-line communities of practice of tree surgeons, urban explorers and bunkerologists (and yes, I know I will get flak for likening urbex people to Lego geeks).
Secondly, it got me thinking about urban mining. There are millions of attics around the world in each of which lie kilos of abandoned Lego awaiting rediscovery. Indeed, enough pieces have already been produced by Lego for every person on the planet to have 57 bricks (clearly, in reality, Lego-capital is concentrated in far fewer hands, and my house still has far more than its fair share). But what still intrigues me is the factors that influence whether or not this attic-Lego finds its way back into circulation and use. When I was a Lego hunter I tended to find that most sets and by-the-kilo piles of Lego tended to be around 7-10 years old, suggesting that much of this stuff is returning to the secondary marketplace when the kids for whom it was originally bought leave home as young adults. Ultimately this curiosity about resource recirculation led into my work on metal theft
Thirdly, it got me thinking about the power and endurance of classification systems and specifically the way in which Lego is physically structured as a system. It is (and was designed to be) a system of infinite combination. That combinability is a function of the uniformity of the standard brick stud design incorporated in each piece. There is now an increasingly wide variety of pieces, but they all fit together because of this ‘inter-locking’ design rule adhered to by each piece.
Fourthly, it made me aware of the power of emotional investment in toys – not only their interplay with childhood memories and absence or surfeit of toys, but also the way in which I became emotionally aligned to Lego as a brand. There are other, rival, plastic construction toy manufacturers – but they always felt like a heresy. I couldn’t bring myself to contaminate the systemic unity of my Lego mountain with Mega Bloks and other ’imitations’, even if functionally they readily could fit within it. Indeed, one of the things that (I think) helped wean me off my Lego obsession was the slight change to the plastic formulation a few years ago. Lego bricks simply don’t make quite the same noise now when rummaged, the lustre is duller and the surface texture feels different. All of this is feint and may well be imagined by me, a way of underpinning my aversion.
Finally, and most importantly, re-discovering Lego helped me to realise how my generation grew up in a Lego-world, a world shaped by a move towards componentisation and interchangeability of parts. This trend appears in both the material word (e.g. containerisation of freight, international harmonisation of product standards and the rise of system building in construction) and also in the ‘intellectual’ one: for I think playing with Lego builds a particular way of thinking, it encourages manipulation of concepts and ideas as interchangeable parts that can be known, played with and assembled into an infinite array of interesting combinations.
I could go on, but will leave it here for now, the adult world beckons. Maybe one day I will write more on this.
For now, I will close with my favourite Lego animation of them all:
NB: If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might also like to read an account of my much briefer dalliance with model railway world-building: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/skuffed-and-scratched-reflections-on-building-small-worlds/