Low-Maintenance Appliances: The Automatic House?

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The computerization of the world is well underway and will bring great blessings, the salespeople tell us, to civilization. An end to war? Well no. An end to totalitarian government? Well, no. An end to the ecological destruction of the universe? Well, no. As a matter of fact, computerization is a great aid to war, totalitarian governments, and ecological destruction. But, anyway, electronics promises good things, too, like enabling people to walk who otherwise would remain crippled for life.

For our purposes here, computerization is not only a way to ease household maintenance but to save energy, a few examples of which we have already seen. Often the only energy saved is energy used merely because we don’t have the discipline to use it carefully and efficiently in the first place.

Now, looking for more worlds to conquer, the computer business wants to turn the whole house into what it calls the “automatic house.” The new electronic thermostats already discussed are part of that automation, controlling heat output economically so you (hopefully) don’t have to worry about at what temperature you left the thermostat. New on the market are electronic digital scales that weigh small amounts of food handily and accurately. Even newer is a faucet that automatically releases a flow of water whenever an object interrupts an infrared beam from an electronic photocell in the nozzle. One such faucet is available from Sloan Value Company. There are also dozens of timers that can be programmed to start or stop everything except the lawn mower. And that might be next.

Is this all practical? How often anyway do you really need an automatic stream of water? Your two-year-old will find it great sport, that’s for sure. And let us contemplate more deeply the computer salesperson’s dreams of combining all these electronic marvels into the “total electronic house control.” By that they mean a software program you put into your personal computer that controls lights, appliances, security systems, and almost any kind of gadget you desire, turning your house on and off “on a schedule tailored to your requirements.” (I’m quoting from one of those glib and naive, rosy-future articles that magazines love to publish so people run out and buy their advertisers’ products.)

The reason this won’t work is that human beings have very little notion about what their requirements are going to be in the near or distant future. They can be relied on in only one respect: they will change their minds. Accordingly, it may be impossible to program a weekly or even daily schedule to regulate lights and appliances. Human nature would soon rebel as it already is rebelling to those sickening electronic voices that tell you your car lights are still on.

Here is a quote from an article describing “Jonathan,” a sort of computer robot built into the “Tomorrow-house” complete electronic programmable system. “Each morning, Jonathan’s voice synthesizer awakens you by announcing “Good morning, Master.” (Already I am running the other way as fast as I can.) “Then Jonathan reports the time, the outdoor temperature, and your appointments for the day.” So now the work office has insinuated itself even into the sanctuary of the bedroom. The last thing I want to hear when I wake up is a list of the appointments I’m supposed to keep that day.

If a security sensor is triggered, Jonathan turns on all the lights and dials the police with a distress call. Great, but I bet the police don’t think so. Think of the false alarms this is bound to lead to. But anyway, you can silence Jonathan with a quick command, thank God.

Seriously though, just how regimented and automatic do we want to live at home? How many people really want to schedule their daily activities, or their house’s functions as much as nine weeks ahead? If the ultimate is to live in a house where everything is accomplished automatically, what will we do? Watch yet more TV? Play yet more games? Perhaps it will become possible to transmit The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into our brain without reading it—while simultaneously watching one program on TV and three more on VCRs from last week.

I would end this guide with a plea for the ultimate maintenance feature every home should possess: Sanity. Home should be a retreat from a “real” world that runs on the cowlike logic of the computer and a disregard for every value except profitability. This has driven Americans to embrace in their leisure time sports and crafts that use their bodies, their hands, their wits, and physical skills, which automation has so thoughtlessly tried to rob us of. Let us be terribly careful how much of all the automatic world we bring home with us. It is expensive. It means more maintenance, one way or another. And much of it is insane. Even Timothy On Knight, editor of Personal Robotics writes (“Will You Own a Robot,” in New Shelter, Nov./Dec. 1984): “Indeed like the personal computer of a few years ago, the personal robot seems to be an answer in search of a question.” Enough said.

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