Katy Guest: Is there an app for avoiding all techies?

The appeal of a private life with no unwanted help

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Are you one of those people who can't understand why it's impossible to go shopping any more without an imbecilic shop assistant following you around insisting on making small talk and trying to "help you with anything" (and then coming over all tearful and weird when you tell them that, no thanks, it's not rocket science, it's only shopping)? Then you won't like the latest news to come out of the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Texas, where all the world's techies have spent the week discussing the latest most hi-tech ways to interfere in our lives.

According to the vice-president of Google, our credit card companies can now predict when a couple is going to divorce, two years before the couple, with 98 per cent accuracy. There's also a mobile social network (aka a stalker) that can predict in nine out of 10 cases where its customers will be the following day, and a website that uses algorithms to show that people who prefer to fly in aisle seats generally "spend more on other people than themselves". They'll be using this information to "help you with anything", you mark my words. Help, that is, by being constantly in our faces and never leaving us alone.

This unavoidable helpfulness, from the people who are supposed to provide us with services, is already on its way, we're now told, in the form of "targeted advertising" in commercial breaks on TV. BSkyB is testing a scheme it calls AdSmart, in which adverts will be tailored to individual viewers by using information including their postcodes, viewing preferences and other customer research. A single male viewer will see ads for grooming products and racy sports cars, they say, while the family next door will have the same programme interrupted by ads for package holidays and people carriers.

This is a slightly more sophisticated version of the technology whereby anyone watching Friends or Nigella will see only ads for chocolate and tampons, or in which women mistake their cats for actual boyfriends and low-fat yoghurt for a fulfilling relationship, whereas anyone watching Top Gear or Two and a Half Men will be offered ads for alcopops, meals for one and just getting a proper life.

It's supposed to halt the trend that means that 50 per cent of advertising spend is now wasted (or 100 per cent, in the case of that ad with the man saying, "Darling, I don't want to do the weekly shop any more" and the woman saying, "Oh, darling, neither do I", which makes customers want to boycott the supermarket in question in droves). But I confidently predict, with about zero per cent accuracy, that it will have the opposite effect of persuading people that the BBC really is worth the licence fee, after all.

All of this is nothing, however, to the latest app for the iPhone. The Woman Calendar costs $9.99, and keeps track of your biological data (menstrual cycle, basal body temperature...) so that it can tell you which days are the best to conceive. Does it have a special calendar that emits a secret sex alarm? Is it likely to go off in meetings or on the bus?

Admittedly, it's not quite as bad as the similar app that warns men when it's the time of the month to steer clear of their girlfriends (all through the month, I would hazard, if they're ever found in possession of this app), but if the day dawns when you catch me letting a telephone tell me when to have sex, please feel free to shoot me through the head.

Somehow, it has come to pass that our credit card companies know more about us than our counsellors, our phones more than our gay best friends, and BSkyB has access to information that only the local Indian takeaway guy should know. Why won't they all just leave us alone? Or do I have to go back to the Stone Age and use my iPhone as a flint?

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