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Book Review : Smart Future Life Style: the Home With a 'Brain'

April 28, 1985|TERENCE M. GREEN

Habitats Tomorrow: Homes and Communities in an Exciting New Era (World Future Society, 4916 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda, Md., 20814; $6.95 large-format paperback).

"In the future, your home may be smarter than you are." That is the first sentence in the first article in this unusual book. It could be a depressing thought.

But what the authors are getting at in their February, 1982, discussion is not really depressing. Their thesis is the development of houses from the present inanimate shell filled with individual, people-operated devices for utility and comfort, to an integrated, computer-operated environment in which the central "brain" takes over day-to-day, even minute-to-minute management and frees the people to do what people can do better than houses can.

This idea can be carried pretty far. One example is that your house notices that its roof is leaking; it contacts other houses and compares notes with several that also had leaking roofs, making up a list of roof repairers to present to you. Or, if you wish, you can program the house to contact the repair firm itself and order the roof fixed without bothering you about it.

The article goes further; it presents a picture of houses "talking to each other" and cooperating in such things as balancing the demand-load on the local utilities. From that it goes on to the possibility of a "house/human symbiosis" and from that to a "world brain" or global consciousness to which both humans and houses contribute their special talents and abilities.

Some rather horrifying science-fiction stories have been published along that basic line of thought. And some very beautiful ones.

The book is a collection of articles from the World Future Society's magazine, The Futurist, selected by the magazine's editor, Edward Cornish, who thoughtfully prints the date of each article's original publication to allow the reader to evaluate it in terms of the thought and knowledge of its day. (Cornish's weekly column, "Your Changing World," is published in the View section on Fridays.)

Many of the articles are very feet-on-the-ground, as, for one example, a description (April, 1982) of the ways West Germans cope with high energy prices, ranging from fine mass transit systems to efficient home appliances; for another (February, 1982), the trend visible to all of us toward smaller, simpler housing units and away from the large, elaborate, single-family home on its own lot.

Another, appropriately titled "The World's Trashiest People" (February, 1981), contends that America is literally throwing away its future and urges a low-waste society that would conserve resources while sustaining a high standard of living.

Views are allowed to clash. An article (February, 1972) by an eminent civil engineer and city planner argues that cities can solve their crisis only by getting away from the private ownership of land and from "home rule;" another (August, 1978) by a Worldwatch Institute researcher says taking advantage of the "primal nesting urge" to own one's own home can help solve the world's shelter problem through various self-help programs--including what is often called "sweat equity."

Yet, visionary ideas are included. One (June, 1981) describes the Meadowcreek Project in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, a model, self-sustainable and self-reliant community of about 150 people. Another (December, 1974), describes "The Ark," a solar-heated and wind-powered greenhouse and aquaculture complex that could supply people in northern climates with a year-around source of fresh vegetables and fish; a small, experimental version was then operating on Cape Cod.

An article on ocean platforms (August, 1973) describes oil-drilling and-pumping islands (including those just offshore in Long Beach, with pictures), ocean terminals for ships and planes, offshore gambling casinos and hotels and a project by the University of Hawaii and the Oceanic Institute for a floating city off the coast of Oahu with a possible population of 15,000.

Far out? Not so far out as a discussion (October, 1981) of how to design villages in outer space, mentioning a space station for 100 workers and their industrial/scientific equipment. How do you build it? What are the best materials? How do you overcome the effects of the lack of gravity? What about health and morale?

On the latter point, an accompanying piece quotes a Rand Corp. researcher's paper, "The Economics of Strikes and Revolts During Early Space Colonization: A Preliminary Analysis." Space stations would tend to evolve into colonies (we all remember what happened when the English colonists in North America quit identifying with the mother country); if the colonists revolted, what should--or could--be the home government's reaction?

Space limitations allow only about a third of the topics covered in the book to be reviewed here. Altogether, "Habitats Tomorrow" is not for those who are afraid of ideas--but is rich, red meat for those who are not.

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