I was sitting at a bar in the dog days of 2019 with my friend Andy talking about astrology. Or, rather, listening to him talk about astrology. Despite my decades in Santa Fe, I remain resistant to the entire concept. This might be because I'm a Sagittarius.¹
Andy had recently been exposed (my word, not his) to The Pattern, one of numerous astrology apps contributing to the rise of astro-tech, Big Zodiac and the venture capital following that boom.
Last spring, The New York Times reported that Co-Star, an app through which people can download and compare birth charts, had raised just over $5 million in venture funds. Digital astrology startup Sanctuary launched around the same time with $1.5 million in investments. Pattern got a shout-out from The Times as well, for its growing popularity among financial types and Hollywood folks (actor Channing Tatum helped boost The Pattern with a Twitter video in which he freaked out over its prescience).
All told, astro-tech is part of a larger boom in the so-called $2.1 billion "mystical services market." Last summer, Mashable reported that users had spent $5.3 million on top horoscope apps, three times as much as the same time the prior year (although not that much compared to meditation apps, which reportedly garnered $30 million during just one quarter last year). Still, astrology apps are having a moment. Some say they have great appeal to women (other people say this is a sexist myth). Everyone seems to agree they use algorithms, primarily in unspecified ways. Purportedly, the millennial demographic ² is the main driver behind this astrological boom, along with the categorical uncertainty of our times, the decline of organized religion, Donald Trump's election and narcissism.
At any rate, my friend Andy had received second-hand information about his readings on The Pattern, but was reluctant to enter his own identifying information into his phone, which struck me as the only sensible part of our discussion.
I've spent the final months of the year reading, and obsessing over, The Times' Privacy Project articles. On Dec. 19, the series published an opinion piece titled, "Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy," which examined a data file that included 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans. This isn't information coming from a giant tech company or a surveillance agency. The location tracking industry is ubiquitous—think weather apps or ones that supply coupons for local stores or any app that uses your location to function. As The Times opines: "They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist's office or a massage parlor."
Because I enjoy fact-based anxiety the way some people enjoy astrology, I pivoted from The Times series to continuing to read Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff's much heralded book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (which former President Barack Obama recently noted as one of his favorites of 2019). What is surveillance capitalism? Zuboff explains it at the onset: "Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data." Surveillance capitalists don't just use our data to predict our behavior but, rather, to shape it.
In "Astrology in the Age of Uncertainty," appearing last fall in The New Yorker, writer Christine Smallwood connected the dots between the rise of astrology and surveillance capitalism, the latter being one of the "opaque and inscrutable systems" that make us feel we don't have control over our lives and turn us, perhaps, toward magical thinking as an alternative framing device for reality.
With that in mind, I succumbed to an online astrological prediction for the coming year (a general one for my sign that did not require my specific date of birth). Among other events, I will be experiencing communication problems and electronic devices may make my life difficult.
Sounds about right.
¹ For what it's worth, I did have my astrology chart read 20 years ago or so by a live human using pen and paper and was told that because both my sun and moon are in Sagittarius, I have no subconscious, which rang true at the time…and still kind of does.
² I value demographic generalizations at about the same level as astrology, possibly because I'm part of Gen X.