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Everything is Awesome: The LEGO Movie as Metaphor for FutureStructure

Animated feature about building blocks and the people who love them illustrates the softer side of FutureStructure

by / February 19, 2014
Warner Bros.

The LEGO Movie enters its third weekend of release after winning the box office crown during its first two weekends out, raking in $146 million in just 12 days. Audiences have been enthusiastic and most critics have been more than kind.

If you have not seen it yet, we meet Emmet Brickowski early on in the film - a perfectly ordinary, rules-following LEGO minifigure. Everyman Emmet lives life by the books.  He follows instructions to the letter, and there are lots of them in the world he inhabits.  He is a construction worker, building new urban landscapes click by click. He and a band of misfits and master builders (this is Lego, afterall) are thrown together in an over-the-top journey to make a future for themselves by saving the world. 

(Alert: Potential spoilers begin in the next paragraph.)

At one level, it is an unlikely action adventure flick inspired by the popular building block toys.  But there are many other layers - including a story of reconciliation of an estranged father and son (LA Times), a feature-length commercial for a toy with cross-generational appeal (The Guardian), "an inquiry into the mind of God" (New York Magazine), a Marxist critique of advanced capitalism (FOX Business) a business parable (The Financial Times) or simply, a political and social satire (Mother Jones).

You can probably find evidence of all of that in the 100 minute Hollywood hit.  But each argument misses the larger and more important point.  The LEGO Movie is a metaphor for FutureStructure!  I didn't go looking for FutureStructure in the movie but there it was embedded in this ultimately hopeful morality play.

If you have spent any time on, you know that we see this new framework comprised of three fundamental characteristics - soft, hard and technology.  We'll get to soft in a second but first a word about the other two.

The Lego blocks themselves are near perfect stand-ins for hard, physical infrastructure.  They are the stuff with which roads, bridges and buildings are built. Technology animates hard infrastructure the same way computer graphics animated the Lego blocks to do the almost unimaginable in the film.  Maybe those are obvious but they are there.

The movie is unintentionally brilliant in illustrating what we have in mind in the soft category.  After 30 years of working in and around information technology, it is too easy to lazily default to some notion of software, but that too misses the point.

The movie illustrates the softer side of FutureStructure, fully orbed.  We have written about "soft" as the ideas that define and share what we build, supporting the human capital and the systems that make possible good jobs, education and healthy and livable communities.

Emmett and his friends show us what that looks like.  Suspending disbelief over their plastic form, they allow us to see the human dynamic and spirit of innovation - and even joy of discovery - that shapes the future and stands in the way of a pre-ordained future.  Technological determinism isn't the only actor shaping the future, nor is the evil overlord who threatens all about which they care.

Emmet begins the story as a rule bound, hapless nobody that has never had an original idea, ever. But when the chips are down, and the overlord and his henchman are closing in, Emmet's response is to harness all the ad hoc cacophony of activity of his friends into a system that ultimately carried the day.

The overlord was working from a perfected but rigid technological design.  Emmett and company had a system too.  His is based on a human design that was all about making their place a great place for the people who lived there.

And it doesn't get much more like FutureStructure than that.

Paul W. Taylor Editor

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor of Governing. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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