Lego-like creativity and the “right to unmake”

As technological platforms have become more powerful, our ability to deconstruct them has weakened. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalizes farmers who disassemble tractors, hip-hop artists who sample vintage songs, and museum conservators who decompile obsolete software.

Store shelves over the last fifty years have likewise undergone a decline in toys that leave play to the imagination, as branded franchises with predetermined narratives like Frozen and Star Wars have crowded out open-ended playthings like generic dolls and chemistry sets.

Lego is one of the few toy companies to survive this encroachment with its reputation for exploratory play intact, yet its plastic bricks are increasingly boxed with instructions to build a single vehicle or building–a trend even more pronounced in competitors like Megablocks, whose specialized parts cannot be used to build anything else. Toys that discourage unmaking teach kids that being creative means following instructions.

Operating in contrast to the decline of hackability in today’s app and toy stores is a spectrum of creators who are decidedly not following instructions. Some hack systems without permission, like those who modify or “speedrun” Super Mario. Other artists exploit the openness of “toy” platforms like Minecraft or design microcontrollers like Arduino explicitly for hacking.

This panel invites artist and scholars to interrogate the often contradictory narratives surrounding makers and unmakers of products and platforms marketed as creative media. Depending on proposals received for the panel, its organizers may structure the discussion according to an aleatoric dynamic consistent with the theme of Lego-like creativity.

The event features Anne Collins Goodyear, a co-director of the Bowdoin Art Museum who began her interest in the digital humanities as curator at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and presided over the release of the College Art Association’s first guidelines for Fair Use. Wendy Seltzer has served as specialist in digital law for such organizations as the W3C consortium, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Tor project, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. John Bell focuses on collaborative creativity as artist and Lead Application Developer for Digital Humanities and architect for the Media Ecology Project at Dartmouth. Craig Dietrich harnesses database-driven interactive media for mobile apps that support renters in slums (Tenants in Action), archives that respect Aboriginal cultural protocols (Mukurtu), and Semantic Web publishing platforms (Scalar).


Upper left: Craig Dietrich, LEGO Tire Fire, 2017. Upper right: John Bell, Analog(ue), 2009.