LISTEN: Chaos and Conquest in the Digital Revolution

Introduction (Part 1)

By Published on .

This book is about a violent revolution in media, marketing and commerce triggered by the revolution in digital technology. So let us therefore begin in that notable crucible of apocalyptic disruption -- Billund, Denmark -- at a company that makes plastic toy bricks.

Billund (pop. 8697) is a squat patch of agricultural land square in the center of the Jutland Peninsula, which does its jutting forlornly northward from Germany. In the springtime, after the thaw, stepping off a turbo-prop produces an instant reminder of how rural the place is. The cloying fragrance of manure shoots right up your nose, as if you'd thumbed past a Vogue ad sampling Merde from Estee Lauder. Let's just say Billund isn't Bangalore or the Silicon Valley. It does not immediately announce: "cutting edge."

From the airport it is but a mile to Hotel Legoland, which, similarly, will remind nobody of, say, the Taj Palace Dubai. It's more like a sprawling, Lego-themed Best Western, at the driveway to which visitors are greeted by a gigantic animatronic bellboy made of Lego bricks, grinning and saluting, grinning and saluting, like a fascist Big Boy. In the hotel, corridors with such fanciful names as Fairytale Road and City Avenue are lined with other colorful Lego constructions. The hallway to my room was guarded by a 4-foot-tall gnome wielding a sign that announced, a bit hyperbolically, "Castle Street." If you were little Dorothy, you would turn to your dog and say, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

But you would be wrong. Billund is very much like Kansas, only with herring for breakfast. The natives are hardy and stolid, kind but reserved -– and maybe even a bit flinty. Rural Denmark is not a place given much to effusion or showing off. It is a place where folks get out of bed in early morning and go about their business, then return in mid-afternoon to their families, whom presumably they feel no need to impress with worldliness or thought leadership. In fact, if you were to just stroll around this eccentric Polymer Motor Inn taking in the various remarkable examples of plastic-brick statuary, you might even be struck by a further hint of backwardness. In a world of "World of Warcraft" and Second Life, the Lego figures -– no matter how elaborate -– are nonetheless quaintly retro. Whether assembled as bellboys, gnomes, Darth Vader, cheerful workmen or -– as in the lobby art -– the Mona Lisa, their constituent rectangular bricks are like 3-D plastic pixels. The images, in other words, are so ... low-resolution.

So, yes, Billund is the birthplace each year of millions upon millions of old fashioned, low-tech building blocks molded in a cow pasture. Here the future of commerce is being forged.
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