It’s a story of a simple worker who found himself in a position of leadership in overthrowing a tyranny. He believed that life was awesome and then discovered he was living with a hidden despotism. Everything was scripted, including mandatory happiness. He figured out that the best way to confound the planners was to build something completely new and unexpected.
Don’t follow the instructions; just be creative and bold.
It’s a lesson we’ve heard from tech entrepreneurs for decades now. I’ve preached it myself.
Throughout the film, the characters are struggling to get away from a planner who wants them locked out. As we approach the end of the movie, we find that this is a metaphor for something real. The person who built this world in his basement was gluing the Lego pieces down exactly as he wanted them.
His son had other ideas, snuck into the basement, and, to his father’s great alarm, was building something entirely new. The boy didn’t want lockdowns. He wanted the freedom to create something new.
This was my memory of the movie, so I watched it again in hopes of feeling inspired by the movie’s tribute to freedom and creativity, and its opposition to lockdowns.
This time, however, the movie presented a different message. And I’m sorry about focusing on the ending here, which might amount to a spoiler if you haven’t seen it, but it is here where we discover that the film might be about something deeper and more insidious.
What we really have here is a struggle between father and son. Both are what the movie calls “master builders,” people highly skilled at using Legos to create whole worlds.
In passing, I once knew such a person. His whole life was building with Legos. He made clocks, paintings, desks, and statues, and managed to sell the results at high prices so that he made this his profession. He received commissions from trade shows and high-net-worth individuals who wanted vanity creations for their homes and offices. Such people do exist.
The essential struggle in the film, then, is not really about the main plot line of the characters. This following point is incredibly obvious but needs to be said because it changes the whole meaning: the Lego characters do not really possess volition. They do not talk, move, reason, or create. They are entirely at the mercy of the builder who uses his or her imagination to make things and invent a story around them. The builder writes the narrative and controls the script.
The father who wanted to glue down his creations might be considered a metaphor for an older generation that had one vision for how society should function. He was shocked when his son completely changed the characters and infrastructure and began to make something new. He realized that he needed to relent in his control in order to turn over control to a younger and more creative generation to make new things.
The meaning, then, is more insidious when you consider that we are living in the age of gamification and modeling. I’ve been to several techy seminars on the topic and read the definitive work on it. The presumption is that people can be incentivized to behave the way you want them to by concocting a series of rewards, real or imagined, for continued participation and moving from level to level. It works well in challenging online games but fails in other contexts. You cannot make people perform utterly senseless tasks merely by gamifying them.
The core problem is confusing the game for real life. And yet that is precisely what we have lived through for this last year. The modeling and the policy prescriptions that have been the drivers of lockdowns come mostly from high-end gamification theory. Sunetra Gupta observed the rise of disease modeling in the epidemiological profession fully 20 years ago and called it out for what it is: “the illusion of control.”
Thus, by their very nature, mathematical metaphors can only be applied to a narrow range of problems: those that lend themselves to reduction into very precise elements, and for which the relationship between these elements can be explicitly declared. Most importantly, this whole artificial exercise has to be able then to comment on some aspect of the problem that would otherwise not have been evident.
But something about the comforting rigidity of the process, its seductive notation, but perhaps mostly its connotations of intellectual privilege, has drawn a diverse selection of disciplines to the altar of mathematical reasoning. Indeed, the widespread misappropriation of the language of mathematics in the social and biological sciences has to be one of the great tragedies of our time.
Recall the origins of the notion of “social distancing” from 2006. It was a middle-school modeler imaging how she, as a master builder, could keep kids apart so that a disease could not spread. Her father took her idea and mathematized and visualized it, and ultimately presented it to the president of the US, who found it compelling. The original paper still appears on the website of the Centers for Disease Control. Some of the original graphics on that paper render human beings in a Lego-like way. Just keep people apart and the disease is thus controlled. Let the master builders run the show!
When you look at the movie plot this way, the struggle between the older and younger generation can be seen as a battle between the old way and the new way. What was the old way? Maybe the Constitution. Maybe the Bill of Rights. A world in which schools were in-person events. A world of freedom of association and travel. It was a world in which we had choice about where to live, what to do, where to shop, and we controlled our own destinies.
What is replacing it? A new generation of modelers who think they have a better idea for how society should function. There are capacity limits, masks, controls over travel and gatherings, a medical establishment that manages our immunity profile, and a technocratic elite that is in charge of the whole system, perhaps someone like Bill Gates.
A puzzling feature of the last 12 months is how those people who like the old ways of freedom and rights are treated so disdainfully by the planners and lockdowners, as if only they, the intellectual elite, know what is best whereas we are merely hanging on to a failed vision of the past. They have the models and the know-how. They are the master builders, and we are mere nostalgists for a world that is no more.
The arrogance of this crowd has been palpable, and they have proven utterly implacable in their opinions even in the face of all real-world evidence that their modelling has failed, and failed miserably. They won’t budge because, to their way of thinking, their models and games work on paper, and on their computers, and that matters far more than the real world. If it didn’t quite turn out as well as they hoped, it’s only because we weren’t compliant enough and it was a maiden voyage. The next time they will get it right – with more and earlier testing and harsher methods of control.
Yes, it all sounds extremely creepy. I might be wrong that The Lego Movie portends a future of one generation of planners replacing another. Maybe it is just a fun cartoon after all. Still, the idea of master builders battling each other over what to make out of the pieces is a chilling one. If you watch it again, just remember that we are the pieces and we are not in charge. Then the movie takes on a completely different caste.