Computers have not yet started to have emotions (or if they have, they aren't telling us), but in a sense they are having babies. Near the beginning of his survey for intelligent nonexperts, Joseph Deken explains the meaning of "CAD," which is an essential part of the computer's reproductive process. This curious word is an acronym for "computer-assisted design," not a slightly obsolete term of reproach, and what it means is that one generation of computers can now participate in producing the next generation -- particularly in the fussy, repetitious and boring parts that are extremely important in the process but not very interesting to talented humans.
CAD is a basic element in the computer revolution that is Deken's primary subject in "The Electronic Cottage," and which has produced, in the last few years, a bewildering array of small, inexpensive, special-purpose computers that will play games with your children, regulate your home heating or security system, turn on your car ignition or tell you when the roast is ready to come out of your microwave oven.
With the aid of older, clumsier computers, we are now able to cram into a tiny silicon chip the equivalent of whole buildings full of intricately wired vacuum tubes, which were the first really functional computers three or four decades ago. A general-purpose home computer more powerful than the pioneering models used in World War II can now be purchased in about the same price range as a good high-fidelity system, and you can use it to play games, keep track of accounts and inventories in your business, draw pictures or compose music (on an elementary level).
The computer revolution is still young, and though he tries conscientiously to avoid overdoing the gee-whiz material in the future tense, Deken can hardly avoid it. "Since you will soon have a computer at home which can communicate over phone lines," he says, "you will be able to subscribe to an electronic version of your favorite newspaper." That is not a wild dream of the year 2001; The Washington Post, like some other newspapers, is already available in a special edition for subscribers with home computers.
Some of his other predictions are a bit more futuristic -- but only because society, en masse, does not work as fast as computers. Clothing, for example. Rather than buy and alter something ready-made, in the near future you may "go to the store with your measurements in explicit detail, perhaps on a cassette tape (only you and the computer will know). You put this tape in a machine at the store and then begin to look at the various offerings for this season, pictured as they would look on you." After selecting fabrics, modifications and various other options, perhaps changing the basic design to suit your tastes, you press a few buttons and the selected fabric, cut exactly to specifiations, is produced on the spot -- ready to be sewn together professionally or on your (computerized) sewing machine at home. If you wish, the fabric itself can be coded with cleaning instructions in a computer language so that the computerized laundry can always handle it exactly right.
Your computerized refrigerator will keep track of what you have in stock, scanning packages that have the coded labels already familiar in supermarkets, and it will tell you what to put on your shopping list (if it doesn't do the shopping itself, automatically, by phone), or it will tell you whether you have the ingredients for a particular recipe. Then there is the automated heating system, with sensor-guided heat lamps that track the occupants of a room and warm them directly without wasting energy to warm the air around them.
All of this and a lot more material like it is presented not in a "perhaps, some day" mode but in a simple, straightforward future tense. The techniques for all of these systems are available right now, and their arrival in the American home is simply a matter of development and marketing. An obstacle to the appearance of the electronic cottage on our landscape is the fear of computers (compounded of half-remembered science fiction, schoolday fears of math and science courses, and the basic human suspicion of anything that presumes to think but is not made of flesh and blood) still widespread in the population. Deken's book is written partly to overcome that fear, though he discusses briefly but thoroughly some of the dangers implicit in the computer phenomenon. He asserts, reassuringly but not inaccurately, that the computer is "the evolutionary descendant of both the pen and the engine," and on the next page insists, in large, calligraphic lettering, that "Computers Don't Hold Grudges."
Most of his text is dedicated to the philosophy of computing, to the remarkable things that can be done with these simple-minded devices (particularly when equipped with sensors and given control of machines, such as thermostats, that operate in the "real world"), and an interesting account of the various strategies that have been devised to harness computer power to human needs. Together with Frank Herbert's more brass-tacks-oriented guide to home computers, "Without Me You're Nothing," "The Electronic Cottage" represents a new generation in books about computers as interesting as the new generation of computers themselves.