Lego, Wombles and Linked Data

As a child I loved Lego. I could let my imagination run riot, design and build cars, space stations, castles and airplanes.

Blue lego brick

My brother didn’t like Lego, instead preferring to play with Action Men and toy cars. These sorts of toys did nothing for me, and from the perspective of an adult I can understand why. I couldn’t modify them, I couldn’t create anything new. Perhaps I didn’t have a good enough imagination because I needed to make my ideas real. I wanted to build things, I still do.

Then the most exciting thing happened. My dad bought a BBC micro.

Obviously computers such as the BBC Micro were in many, many ways different from today’s Macs and if you must PCs. Obviously they were several orders of magnitude less powerful than today’s computers but, and importantly, they were designed to be programmed by the user, you were encouraged to do so. It was expected that that’s what you would do. So from a certain perspective they were more powerful.

BBC Micro’s didn’t come preloaded with word processors, spreadsheets and graphics editors and they certainly weren’t WIMPs.

What they did come with was BBC BASIC and Assembly Language.

They also came with two thick manuals. One telling you how to set the computer up; the other how to programme it.

This was all very exciting, I suddenly had something with which I could build incredibly complex things. I could, in theory at least, build something that was more complex than the planes, spaceships and cars which I modelled with Lego a few years before.

Like so many children of my age I cut my computing teeth on the BBC Micro. Learnt to programme computers, and played a lot of games!

Unfortunately all was not well. You see I wasn’t very good at programming my BBC micro. I could never actually build the things I had pictured in my mind’s eye, I just wasn’t talented enough.

You see Lego hit a sweet spot which those early computers on the one hand and Action Man on the other missed.

What Lego provided was reusable bits.

When Christmas or my birthdays came around I would start off by building everything suggested by the sets I was given. But I would then dismantle the models and reuse those bricks to build something new, whatever was in my head. By reusing bricks from lots of different sets I could build different models. The more sets I got given, the more things I could build.

Action men simply didn’t offer any of those opportunities, I couldn’t create anything new.

Early computers where certainly very capable of providing a creative platform; but they lacked the reusable bricks, it was more like being given an infinite supply of clay. And clay is harder to reuse than bricks.

Today, with the online world we are in a similar place but with digital bits and bytes rather than moulded plastic bits and bricks.

The Web allows people to create their own stories – it allows people to follow their nose to create threads through the information about the things that interest them, commenting, and discussing it on the way. But the Web also allows developers to reuse previously published information within new, different context to tell new stories.

But only if we build it right.

Most Lego bricks are designed to allow you to stick one brick to another. But not all bricks can be stuck to all others. Some can only be put at the top – these are the tiles and pointy bricks to build your spires, turrets and roofs. These bricks are important, but they can only be used at the end because you can’t build on top of them.

The same is true of the Web – we need to start by building the reusable bits, then the walls and only then the towers and spires and twiddly bits.

But this can be difficult – the shinny towers are seductive and the draw to start with the shiny towers can be strong; only to find out that you then need to knock it down and start again when you want to reuse the bits inside.

We often don’t give ourselves the best opportunity to womble with what we’ve got – to reuse what others make, to reuse what we make ourselves. Or to let others outside our organisations build with our stuff. If you want to take these opportunities then publish your data the webby way.

Comments

14 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Wombling has a technical meaning: see discussion on Language Log at http://tinyurl.com/wombling .

  2. bloggerhanz,

    Lego? I love it but I don’t have the blocks/bricks anymore! And I like creating and presenting new things: coming up with new ideas …

  3. Steven Harris,

    I loved Lego and Action Men. Sometimes I would build quite large encampments for my Action Men to hide in. Strangely enough I did not grow up to become an architect or a soldier.

  4. I myself loved LEGO, and everytime I used to get a set I used to be delighted!

    Ah! Those good old golden days…

  5. Legos was alway the gift of choice I gave my boys for Christmas each year. Today one designs automation machines and the other designs pipeing for manufaturing plants. I will always say Lego helped shaped their future. This week I be shopping for the Christmas Legos for my granddaughters. Legos was and continues to be a great tool builder for the future.

  6. teenagegeek,

    lego rocks too hard.

    i also have a love of playmobil.

  7. Interesting post! I myself really loved Lego as a kid, and I built what ever I needed to play whatever I played. I really liked to see my constructions grow. And when it comes to early computers, I too chose something I could build from scratch, an Sharp MZ-700. I remember having to “install” the operating system every time I tuned on the computer, by playing one of those old cassettes in the internal tape recorder. Interestingly enough, though, I made the same experience as you; I did not get as far as I wanted in terms of programming. But whatever I learned from BASIC, and later Visual BASIC, actually have been useful later in life.

  8. The same is true of the Web – we need to start by building the reusable bits, then the walls and only then the towers and spires and twiddly bits.

    That is so true. Everyone is so focused on the fancy, the extreme. But, not as much with the fundamentals. Excellent post.

    Mattou
    DieganSquared.com

  9. givenchance,

    i did not have Lego and i was very sad of this fact. all my friends had it and i remember how i went to visit them only to play with this colourful Lego. i think that every kid had a dream to have this constructor!

  10. Dan Gluckman,

    One of Douglas Coupland’s characters in Microserfs claims that Lego influenced a generation to develop a geek mentality because it trained kids to think of the world as ‘bits’ that could be assembled to do many different things.

    So Tom – the big developmental question – has your brother taken a different path in life….?

  11. @Dan – yes my brother has taken a very different path.

    I didn’t know that about Microserfs – I like that.

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