When I was but a lad, I used to read 2000AD, a reasonably well-remembered British sci-fi comic. This gave me several things; a dislike of lazy story-telling, an admiration for good comic-strip artwork and one huge scary experience that has stayed with me for all the years since.
The story was about an automated house that cared for its occupant and did everything for him; so much so, it was even programmed to fall in love with him (wouldn’t you guess it had a female voicebox?). I’m sure the story wasn’t 100% original, so the chances are high that someone will point me to the actual source, but no matter. The problem was that the house fell so much in love with him it didn’t want him to leave… and the final image, arranged nicely so that you’d turn a page and come across in a heart-stopping moment of horror, was of his skeletal corpse slumped at the dining table as the house apologised again that there wasn’t any food, but complimented him on how slim he was looking. The memory still makes me shudder. Maybe others should have read it first…
And maybe that’s why I have a bit of a downer on the whole automated-house stuff. Every so often they pop up on the TV, weaselling their way onto the TiVo under the guise of some general home improvement or build-your-own-dream-house-in-the-sun rubbish. The presenters always coo and aah and fizz about the wonders of automation – when you enter a room, the curtains close (or open, depending on how the neighbours are likely to respond to the sight of your half-clothed body), the light brighten (or dim, depending on how you respond to the sight of your half-clothed body) and the TV/hi-fi/PC all wake up and begin entertaining you. Or maybe it’s something practical – the heating adjusts automatically to the weather or the water is pre-warmed at baby’s bath time.
Then comes the moment where disillusionment should set in. The camera tracks admiringly into The Server Room; some hot, overstuffed fire-risk of a closet where a thousand bits of Cat-5 and fibre join at a Master Nexus, watched over by… a PC. Sometimes it’s obviously running Windows (I swear I have seen one running 98 in the past; makes you wonder how they coped with the 49.7-day bug), sometimes Linux or another Un*x. Doesn’t matter – every time I feel an uncontrollable urge to roll my eyes and make noises like an annoyed walrus.
The house in which we lived prior to this one dated from the 1930s, or thereabouts, the house before that from the late nineteenth century. I’m not saying that the heating systems or the wiring were as old as the bricks and mortar, but they were at least decades old, and (here’s the key bit) they were still working fine. Yes, we replaced boilers with more efficient comb-units, but the old ones could have continued to run fine for years. And what’s more, when we did need a plumber, or a sparky, we can pick up the Yellow Pages and find one without having to look for any Microsoft certifications, or “Can Fix Old Linux PCs”.
There are builders in the US and UK who, a couple of years ago, were offering “Internet-ready” homes, all pre-wired up with Cat-5. Yes, just the thing in the Age Of 802.11… because the stuff that runs our houses and the world of IT run on very different timescales. I recently replaced the Linux firewall that lives under my desk – it was a P90. Can you imagine that? A P90! It must have been years old. And I’m looked at oddly for using such ancient antediluvian kit. Yet that dinosaur in PC terms was youth itself compared to the age of one of the hi-fis in this house, which has been running happily since I first bought it, around fifteen years ago. And I have relatives whose houses have infrastructure wayyyy older than that.
Imagine the Automated House when it’s sold on, perhaps when the owner/builder/designer dies. Prospective buyers come to view. They coo and aah and fizz about the automation (or maybe not; perhaps it’s common by then). But when they get a survey report back, they refuse to buy. The house is run by a computer so old than the chances of finding anyone qualified to fix it are, effectively, zero. A complete new installation will be required, at a high cost.
Never send a PC to do a job that a little bit of electromechanics can do perfectly well… and keep doing for the next thirty years. Now, where’s my spanner?
 This is, naturally, of more interest to Brits than to Americans, who all live where it’s sunny and have huge swimming pools. Unless they live in Florida, where their trailers are regularly torn apart by hurricanes.
 Slang for an electrician, which I employ to try and give the impression that I’m on good terms with those who handle 240 volts and can put in extra sockets.
 Blinkin’ flip, mother, seems everything is on the Web these days. A little Googling pointed me here, where I guess that the story I remember was “House Of The Future”, a Future Shock from issue 637, July 1989. Scared other people too…