The Importance of a Faceless Fireman

Scratch any geek, and you're likely to find a kid who grew up learning programming on the Lego "platform."

I can remember the very first Lego set I ever got. It was my fifth birthday party, and my friend Noah had gotten me a fire engine. These were the early, early Legos. The figures in the set had no arms, no legs, and no faces. They looked more like faceless automatons than actual firefighters -- quite a contrast to what Lego makes now. The blocks were extremely basic as well. But that began my long devotion to Legos. In fact, Legos were really my first computer. They're not microcomputers, in the conventional sense, but they fit the model well. Essentially, you've got blocks and a goal of what you want to build, and you have to work within the system to reach that goal. You could describe computer programming exactly the same way. That's why, when you talk to programmers or engineers, you often find that many of us grew up playing with Legos. Legos binds us together -- pun intended.

Of course, how people played with Legos varied wildly. My favorite approach -- perhaps a foreshadowing of my fondness for history in college -- was to arrange all of the people, vehicles, and buildings I had crafted into a sort of visual chronology, from Lego castles at one end to a moon-base set at the other. Then I'd take people from different time periods, walk them through the different eras, and make them interact. It was far better than Back to the Future Part III! But the real fun with Legos wasn't the playacting -- it was the construction. The whole point was not the result but the process used in getting there. And while I don't want to sound like an old man harrumphing about today's Legos, in my day, we didn't have any of those fancy pieces. You wanted a window? You had to build the frame for it, darn it. But that made the whole Lego experience even better -- you learned how to deal with the system's shortcomings by inventing ways around them. You learned the system itself.And it was learning how to deal with the system that really made Legos great. For some reason, we geeks like to categorize, to learn the rules of the system and work within them -- or work around them when we have to. I know that was true for me -- and learning the rules that would result in a solid Lego building versus an unstable one is a lot like building a stable Web application or any other computer program. Playing with Legos helped prepare my mind for dealing with computers and finding ways to work within their rule systems.Playing with Legos also taught me that if you are running out of one-by-six pieces, you can combine smaller ones -- say one-by-fours with one-by-twos -- to get more materials. And that you should make sure to stagger those with stabilizing blocks, like your remaining one-by-sixes.Now that I have a child of my own, I've been rediscovering the joy of Legos. Perhaps it's just my adult perception, but today's toys seem to require much less imagination. Still, watching my four-year-old daughter build homes for her dolls out of Lego's Duplo blocks gives me hope. Legos are different. They require interaction, and it is that interaction that makes them the best toy around.We are currently microtiming our children's lives, and we've cut out too much play time, especially with truly interactive toys. Toys that preach interactivity are often anything but -- computer games that only allow you to do certain things, electric pianos that require you to follow along with a song. As a result, we are cheating our children out of real play. And cheating ourselves too.I've kept all of my Legos, and my daughter and I will continue to play with them. Even that faceless, limbless fireman.Jeff Bates (hemos@slashdot.org) is a cofounder of Slashdot.org, a heavily trafficked technology-news aggregation and commentary site (its tag line: "News for Nerds, Stuff that Matters"). Bates is also in charge of all of the online sites of OSDN, owned by VA Linux Systems Inc., which now also owns Slashdot.org. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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