The Manifesto is proud to present the first installment of a regular column by Michael Rutherford entitled Fire for Effect. “Fire for Effect” is a military term used by spotters for indirect fire weapons. Examples of indirect fire weapons include cannons and mortars which are usually fired from a position from which the gunners cannot see the target because of terrain. To determine the proper aiming of the weapon, a spotter who can see the target relays basic coordinates to the gunners who then fire a few ranging rounds, allowing the spotter to see how far off target the guns are aimed. This process is sometimes referred to a “zeroing in.” When, by this trial and error procedure, a shot lands on the target, the instruction will be “fire for effect” telling the gun crew that they are on the target, and to fire one or more salvos of several rounds rapidly to blanket the target with the explosive projectiles…or in Rutherford’s case, explosive rhetoric.
Without further preamble, please enjoy Fire for Effect: Unique is not Special.
True or False: Every snowflake is special.
Every snowflake is not SPECIAL… but rather UNIQUE… and unique is no big deal.
Now get up off your ass and start cataloguing snowflakes. You will have UNIQUE coming out of your ears in no time. After you have catalogued say… 15K individual snowflakes… photographed them, weighed them, inventoried their chemical components… you will see that while no two are exactly the same, they do start to fall into large categories pretty quickly. Eventually, it will occur to you that most snowflakes are in fact… very similar… to many other snowflakes. And what’s more… only a very small number of snowflakes will really stand out. Keith… You jacked up your sample. Go back outside and catalogue 15K more.
SPECIAL… (I looked it up just to be sure) means “BETTER, GREATER, or OTHERWISE DIFFERENT from what is normal. Yep, DIFERENT is a part of the meaning… but don’t fixate on that small overlap. BETTER and GREATER are right there up front, and the clause “from what is normal” nails down the ass end of this definition pretty tight. SPECIAL = BETTER THAN NORMAL. Embrace this truth now, or leave this essay at once!
Can every snowflake be BETTER and GREATER than the normal snowflake? No it cannot. Not mathematically, not empirically, and not operationally. The assertion that every snowflake is SPECIAL is flat-out WRONG in every way, except from the cultural perspective (AKA the pretend perspective).
“Every snowflake is special” is a very powerful cultural metaphor. It has its place, and does some good. At its core, it contains some notions we would all do well to remember.
When applied correctly, the metaphor can re-enforce the notion that every person has some intrinsic worth. It celebrates the inherent value of being unique. The unspoken assertion is that this uniqueness is in and of itself a good thing, and that every variation is a potential benefit. The metaphor is a tool. But as with so many other valuable tools, like alcohol, duct tape, or spear guns… we seldom apply the metaphor correctly… and it is often used to suggest that every person’s contribution to every endeavor is superior and merits praise. Perhaps MOST IMPORTANTLY, the myth contributes to a culture where CRITICAL FEEDBACK IS DISCOURAGED. It is a tragic and dangerous self-delusion which often results in such dubious claims such as: Wearing pajamas at Wal-Mart is OK, or “If she is too dumb to see what a catch you are, then it’s her loss” or “Destroying the enemy force before it reaches the capital isn’t the most important thing… it only matters that you tried” This is destructive thinking. Anybody who wants to do better… Athletic trainers, military commanders, lawyers, sales people and yes … wait for it… artists… They all understand that not every snowflake is special, and that honest critical feedback is essential for enhancing performance.
History, science, mythology, and often our own painful personal experience should tell us all… many snowflakes are not special… in fact, many snowflakes are trampled, defeated, destroyed, outclassed and/or never ever ever have dates on Saturday night.
So whats my point? Why does this matter? Am I ever going to connect this crap to our hobby, and will this essay EVER BECOME INTERESTING? Well I’m glad you asked! Spoiler: If you’re not interested yet, STOP READING… this essay doesn’t get any better!
Now, if you would, I need you to re-read the paragraphs above, and every time you see the word snowflake, replace it with the acronym AFOL. So for example, the first line of text becomes: “True or False: Every AFOL is special.” I will now subtly introduce my thesis…
THESIS: AFOLs should abandon the SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE metaphor because it retards our individual improvement, and the improvement of Lego as an art form.
Some inoculatory observations about my thesis:
I restrict my assertion to ADULT fans of Lego. Passion may be the king of creativity… but age and experience are its wise councilors. We are adults, and as such we should be more objective, more humble, and maybe more thick-skinned than young builders. If we are not those things… then we are not being GOOD adults. Those traits are part of the whole ADULT gig. Maybe (“maybe” mind you) we should place encouragement above improvement with very young builders (and tell them there MOCs are special… even when they suck). But for “us AFOLs” we should be ready to challenge, grow, learn, and we should seek to develop one another even as we ask others to develop help us. Grow up already.
I ASSUME… from the start… that improvement is inherently good. I KNOW I want to improve, and I assume most other builders do as well. That desire to improve grows more intense as I see improvement all around me. Younger builders cranking out MOCs that just plain rock. Yea… I want to stay relevant, and that is not about achieving a skill level. It’s about embracing the need to keep developing…until the younger builders catch me, jab my eyes out with broken glass, and leave me for dead in a ditch by the side of the road (Kids! You gotta love’em right?) . For some, improvement may be unimportant, and if that is the case, then bail out. I’m not talking to you. Grab your purple crayon and go do your own thing Harold.
I KNOW that critical feedback from other builders has been the primary catalyst for my own improvement as a Lego builder, and I assume that the same is true for MOST others. Critical feedback is not the ONLY catalyst. There are comparisons we make to what we see on-line, and challenges we issue to ourselves… but external non-sympathetic developmental feedback? It’s the best. Sometimes learning means burning!
I OBSERVE that MOST COMMENTS on MOST MOCs in MOST FORUMS tend to be two things: Positive and Superficial. (Great MOC! Classic Space FTW! Cool, check out my MOC!). A salutary utterance is not without merit… Atta boy!… but like salts, sugars, and fats… we use them way too much. Leafy greens, get some!
I KNOW that Lego as an art form has improved in the last 20 years. I BELEAVE that this improvement is not simply the result of new parts and new colors. Those factors can have an effect on the state of the art… but it is the ARTIST… more than any other factor… which determines the state of the art. Builders (as a population) are building BETTER than they did 20 years ago, and Lego …as an ART FORM… is richer, more diverse, and just flat-out mo-bettah than it was 20 years ago.
So back to my point. Why do AFOLs embrace the Special Snowflake paradigm? Why do so many of us restrict our comments to one word messages of encouragement, and withhold meaningful potentially developmental observations? Many reasons I suppose… but mostly because we are FEARFUL or LAZY and because we have no TRADITION OF CRITIQUE.
FEAR. We dread the notion of offending others or looking foolish in public (again, I’m talking about ADULTs here). We really pander to our fears when it comes to withholding CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS. Fear of offence. Fear of appearing presumptuous. Fear of discouraging a builder we respect. Fear of being called out as a malicious crap talker or a troll. Fear of not appearing clever enough. Lots and lots of fear. But we escape all those fears simply by adopting the “Every Snowflake is Special” paradigm. No negative comments means no awkward fears. They are vanquished from the field… Hurray! No fear! It’s ALL GOOD! But it aint all good. Not really.
LAZY. Critique takes effort, and maybe time. OK, if give us all a big fat bye on the time issue. We all need more… and we don’t have it. So ok. Excuse accepted. But effort? Screw that! You just enjoyed the image. Your not bound by contract (social or formal). Your all foot loose… so you can just dance away like Kevin Bacon (Mmm… I WISH you could dance away like that!). But you are also ADULTs. In fact… your all AFOLs (See, I know you’re all AFOLs for a fact, because I already said AFOLs are the only people I’m talking to right now… cool trick right?). So take a second to BE an AFOL. Think damn you. Think! It’s not poetry. It’s not architecture. It’s 3 minutes of focused and candid thought. You respect the builder and you enjoy their work… so sit down, shut up, THINK…and the WRITE! Be candid, be direct, and show your peers in the hobby some respect! If leaving a short critique means clicking through fewer images before lunch… then so be it! Your critique WILL improve the efforts of your peers… what’s your excuse (no, not time… I already gave you a bye for time… what else you got?).
TRADITION. We DON’T critique one another’s work because we don’t. Huh? Yea… we don’t critique because we have no tradition of critique. Nobody expects it. It’s not considered part of “normal” behavior. It’s not like “thankyou” and “please” (I would mention turn signals… but most people already seem to have abandoned that shit as well). So, it’s simply NOT DONE… but the norms of society do not emerge from the night sky. They are not randomly occurring natural forces. They are arbitrary and often deliberate decisions. We can ADOPT a tradition of critique. Traditions of critique DO exist in other art forms. Painting and sculpture. Architecture and dance. Why not Lego? Fear, Laziness, and our own habitualized indifference? Cast off the chains of habit, and make our hobby mo-bettah!
Fact is, we OWE critical feedback to one another. An artist produces a MOC. They publish it. We look at it and are delighted, inspired, or maybe just touched on some emotional level. Maybe the art communicates a message to us. Maybe we are enriched. OK, most often we are simply amused for a few moments… but still! Even THAT is something to be thankful for right?
So, when we gain some small benefit from the work of another… we should repay that debt. We respect the artist who took the chance (the chance of public rejection). What is an easy way to repay this debt? A check? Chocolates in a box? A nude photo? No, that’s all crap. Besides, there are already nude photos of Keith all over the internet (Keith even has nude photos of Kevin Bacon). So what’s the point?
We SHOULD leave a short critical comment on a MOC we like because it is a sign of respect, or gratitude, and maybe… because we want to help one another improve. What? If we are in fact ADULT fans of Lego, then we can (and SHOULD) communicate with each other respectfully about one another’s work. It’s not presumptuous, it’s not arrogant, and it’s not unwarranted.
Reality check: I’m talking about respectful and honest communication between adults here. I’m not talking about some kind of over the top Marxist Struggle Session! I’m not talking about ritual humiliation or ignoring the good in order to highlight the bad. CRITIQUE is about objectivity and seeing both the good and the potential for improvement (nobody should try to fix what aint broke!). That’s just a bunch of crazy talk!
Look at it this way: Keith offers LOTs of critique, and it is well received. Why? Because he is well-known? Yea, maybe. Because he phrases it pretty well? Yea probably that too. But ALSO… because MOST builders WANT critique. The fact that it comes from Keith is not really the important part. Most of us WANT feedback. Cast aside your doubts (or excuses) about not being an expert. Bitches please! None of us are “experts” (except maybe Schwartz… I mean… good god that guy can build!). There is no national council on MOC critique. No exam. No license. The artist has thrown their work up before your eyes… and THAT qualifies you! Houston reports: You are a GO for critique! Further, there is no WRONG ANSWER where critique is concerned. There is good critique and lame critique. Absolutely! Just like MOCs. Good and not so good and some that are downright sucky! Does the lack of a rule book stop us from building? Hell no! We are building all over the dam place. So let it be with the ART OF CRITIQUE! If you build… and I build… then I say bring it! We are peers, equals, colleagues… just like that! Equals. I post my work IN ORDER to invoke your opinions (and I cast a side long glance at any who post, yet claim to be indifferent to the opinions of others).
One last thing about this notion of being an AFOL. I have tossed the term around in a decidedly liberal fashion in this essay. ADULT fan of Lego. If you think the title is anchored in your age… your wearing blinders. On line… nobody has any age. We are mixed up and anonymous and many of us lie about everything… gender, age, ethnicity… In the end, we have no choice but to judge one another BY OUR CONDUCT. Are you young and want to be treated with more respect? Step up your game. Are you treated like a child despite your age? Might want to think about the cause for that. On line, ADULT is just a mindset. So set your mind.
I wrote this… rant? Tirade? Drivel? Specifically in order to solicit response from any or all of you. I specifically call out Matt Rowntree, Simon Liu, and… Mmmm… Carter Baldwin. You guys all have specific insights that are indispensable to this dialogue. Am I wrong? Did I overlook crucial considerations? Rowntree… I know you got SOMETHING to say on this topic. And of course, to ANYBODY with an opinion, or a “yea but” or a “Classic Space FTW!”… Bring it! Put me in my place! Highlight my blind spots, my prejudices (and my rugged good looks!). Like many dead Greek guys, I think the truth lies intact and hidden within honest dialogue.