Why would anyone want to play with a toy that is so damn hard? The Rubik’s Cube entered our collective cultural experience 30 years ago, next month, and there is still no satisfying answer. At first, in the early ’80s, we all had fun just spinning it around in our hands. The original Cube was an elegant object — a perfect 3x3x3, solid but also flexible and smooth. It was covered in bright colored stickers and felt good to hold. But it didn’t make hilarious noises or crazy smells. It didn’t talk or pee or dance. You couldn’t dress it up and (a minor thing here) it was impossible. Even so, we all had to have it. Its impossibility was funny, and this satisfied us.
Then, quietly, slowly, we started to hear the stories. People, children like us, were starting to solve it. The Cube transformed these boys (because they were mostly boys) from goofy weird dudes without social skills into superhuman weird dudes that were intimidating. The boys who solved Rubik’s Cube were like wizards, distant and terrifying demigods with magical qualities. This is because a single, unspeakable question lingered around them: How much committed alone time had they spent with the Cube? We didn’t want to know the answer. Hours? Days? Weeks?
Frustration was stirred. Frustration and fear. Once harmless befuddler, the Cube began to taunt us. We weren’t sure we could make the sacrifice it seemed to demand of us. There were those who lined up a single row of colors and convinced themselves it was enough. The most painful thing was to achieve a fully completed side that contained a single square of a different color. That square was failure. The funny Cube was now hurled at brick walls, thrown under traffic. People began to dismantle the Cube brick by brick in sad attempts to solve it by killing it. But we would rather smash the thing to bits than let it steal our souls, which, we thought, was the only way to win.
My older brother was one of these Rubik’s Cube wizards, and I would soon enough learn his secret. They were teaching each other, even using manuals, to solve it. The boys had formed societies, and the societies were growing. Within a year or two, the toy became an international force. There were songs written about the Rubik’s Cube, Saturday Night Live skits, T-shirts, buttons, Rubik’s Cube socks and suspenders. There was a cartoon starring an anthropomorphic Rubik the Amazing Cube who teamed up with the Rodriguez children to regularly foil the magician behind the toy. It stopped mattering whether you could solve the Rubik’s Cube or not. It just mattered that you considered it.
As the Cube’s inventor Ernő Rubik has pointed out, a puzzle is by nature a solitary pastime. In theory, the puzzle’s primary function — to be solved — is best accomplished by a single mind in a private space under low-stress conditions. But once you approach a puzzle as something to consider rather than simply solve, it becomes an invitation to dance. No one can deny that the chaos of a scrambled-up Rubik’s Cube begs to be ordered. Once it’s ordered though, the first thing you want to do is show it off to someone else, and the second is to scramble it back up again. There is one solution to the Rubik’s Cube, and many ways to solve it; there are over 43 quintillion ways to arrange it. You might say that more than solving it, the Rubik’s Cube wants to engage you. Whether you are solving it, or thinking about solving it, or finding new ways to solve it, you are participating. So as the Cube begs to be ordered it also invites chaos, the chaos of participation. The way the Rubik’s Cube allows people to explore the tension between order and chaos makes it endlessly fascinating. And it’s what turned a solitary pastime into the inspiration for a global community. Watching people speedcubing (solving it as fast as you can), or trying to solve it blindfolded, or as a 3-year-old Chinese girl sitting in a highchair, or as a grandfather in Latvia, or while skydiving, or one-handed, with people or alone, or not at all, we are reminded of why the Rubik’s Cube is so iconic: not because it’s a symbol of individual accomplishment, but because people have made it into a symbol of possibility.
Ernő Rubik has often been painted as a taciturn loner, a grudging genius who built a beautiful object he hoped would create an introspective space where individuals could consider the elegance of geometry, and who instead became an icon for one of the great marketing crazes of all time. Rubik developed the Cube inside 1970s Communist Hungary, in a milieu where individual pursuits were not just fun but often necessary for psychic survival. He didn’t entirely believe he could solve the Cube when he built it, and it took him a solitary month while living in his mother’s apartment to do so. In an interview in the mid-1980s, Rubik described the Golden Age of the Cube as the time before it went global, when ”it brought only delights to me.” “One of the main characteristics of the Cube is that it has no national character,” he has said. “It’s about a human being trying to solve his or her problem.”
I suspect, though, that Rubik not only understood the potential his Cube had for community-building. He relishes the chaos as much as the order. Years ago, Rubik said that we spend our lives trying to solve the puzzles of everyday life, puzzles we don’t often have control over. But the puzzles we make ourselves, solvable puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube, give us a kind of hope.
“A good puzzle,” Rubik said, “it’s a fair thing….the problem depends just on you. You can solve it independently. But to find happiness in life, you’re not independent. That’s the big difference.”
If the Rubik’s Cube is like life (a metaphor Rubik himself made) then a good life is like a good puzzle. It can be solved within the order of solitude but is more rewarding in the chaotic company of others. After all, even Rubik — in those first heady days of the Cube’s birth — took pleasure in just scrambling the squares around like we did, watching the “color parade” in his hands. Sometimes, the least interesting thing to do with a puzzle is solve it. • 13 April 2010