No self-driving cars, no virtual-reality PCs. For all the promise of futuristic technology, it ends up entering our lives as a series of annoyances: spam, impossible-to-open plastic packaging, those pagers you hold while waiting for your table at Applebee's. Laptop users invade our cafes. Cell phone rings interrupt our conversations. And the future will just make it worse.
1. Cell phones on planes: Airbus just got approved to enable onboard cell phone use in Europe. Though plane crews can enable a voice-off mode, don't bet on that being enforced during flights as airlines try to offer more convenience to business passengers. Imagine being stuck for seven hours with one half of a conversation. You'll want to grab the thing out of your neighbor's hand and flush it down the tiny airplane toilet.
2. Animated billboards: American cities are increasingly asked to legislate electronic billboards. Des Moines just decided that billboards can change images every eight seconds. The state of Arkansas set the same limit three weeks ago when it approved electronic billboards. (California may soon affirm the right to erect electronic billboards.) Expect advertising firms to push for lower minimums as the public gets used to the flashier advertising. If supporters can argue that the signs haven't caused accidents, it'll be harder to fight them with complaints of mere annoyance.
3. Aggressive in-car GPS: Triple-digit growth in GPS navigation units (over 3 million could be sold this year) means a huge number of drivers are dealing with the little gadgets that usually help them find their way — but occasionally cause accidents and often just bug the hell out of them. Every time a GPS-using driver takes an unprogrammed exit from the highway to gas up, the navigation system recalibrates and announces the changes in that ubiquitous female voice. It'll sound eerily like this.
4. Camera-wearing freaks: Sure, the Justin.tv lifestream network now hosts streams from a dozen cameras, most attached to or pointing at one exhibitionist asshat (me, for example). But the real freaks to worry about are the camera-phone carriers that rapper Mike Skinner lamented in his latest album ("How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers when I know they've all got cameras?"). Still-shot cameras are already standard-issue on phones, and mid-range phones now come with video cameras. Every digital camera takes thirty-second videos, and proper camcorders are pocket-sized and under 500 bucks. So if you don't want to end up on YouTube where a million children and losers will say "omg that was gay," just don't do anything stupid for the rest of your life, mmkay?
5. Even more iPods: Not to be a downer, but isn't it a bit depressing when everyone walks around with earphones in? iPods aren't just for rich folks, now that they cost as little as 80 bucks. Last Christmas put Apple over 20 million iPods sold in Q4. (Half that many were sold the quarter after — the iPod's third-best quarter ever.) And who's buying them? The trendy cute members of the opposite sex that you wanted to talk to on the train. Or, of course, the annoying prick blocking your way in the mall.
6. Traffic cameras: Despite fights from driver advocacy groups, red-light cameras are still on the rise, and several states may reverse their bans on speed-violation cameras. Better wireless technology means quicker processing and more efficient systems that will replace traffic cops (who know that hey, you really tried to obey that light) with unmerciful computers. Will you bother going to court to fight the tickets, or will you just pay up?
7. Energy-saving wonks: Thanks liberals, for getting everyone riled up about energy consumption without any proper knowledge of the metrics. Under the inevitable Democratic regime to come, expect climate change to replace the war on terror as America's biggest fear. Also expect the public to get it just as wrong.
Just remember this: A full 17% of the nation's energy consumption — including industrial, transportation, commercial and residential uses — is from gasoline use. Another 6% is from diesel fuel. Replacing a daily car trip by biking or walking does more than all the unplugging of little electronic device chargers you learned about on some eager efficiency blog.
While a third of U.S. energy consumption is industrial and another 28% is used in transportation, everyone will focus on What They Can Do to curb the 21% of consumption that happens in their homes. Most likely they'll try unplugging their phone chargers and putting their computers to sleep as they've been told. But only 5% of home energy use comes from electronics. How many people will clean their fridge coils (refrigeration: 8%) or seal doorways and windows (space heating: 32%)?