Sunday, December 15, 2019

How app culture turned astrology into a modern obsession

Nov 21. 2019
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By The Washington Post · Maura Judkis · FEATURES

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The first thing the astrology apps did was shred me to pieces. Co-Star told me that I express love through work and routine, and that I am preoccupied with death. The Pattern told me that I have trouble with codependency, that others might see me as insensitive, and that I have dated emotionally unstable partners. Sanctuary told me I can be selfish, competitive, and preoccupied with fears and doubts.

The apps are, regrettably, correct. Not only am I all of those things, I'm a Cancer sun, Sagittarius rising, and an Aries moon. I found this out when I fulfilled a typical millennial trope: Texting my mom to ask her what time I was born.

"It was early," my mom replied. (Wrong. It was evening, we later determined.)

It was Co-Star that told me to text my mom, because the app needed the information to produce my natal chart, which utilizes the positions of many more planets and stars at the exact time of one's birth. It produces horoscopes that some say are far more sophisticated than the generic "good luck in finance and love" you see in this and other newspapers.

"Astrology is this incredible way of looking at a story about you," said Ross Clark, CEO of Sanctuary. "So your chart is a representation of different elements of yourself, or parts of your life's journey." 

Amid the millennial self-care set, astrology is back. After the heady "What's your sign?" spirituality of their parents' youth, the practice receded to the edges of culture as a kooky space-filler in the newspaper, albeit one that was read devotedly. 

But now, the pseudoscience isn't as much of a taboo as it used to be. It's been embraced by young people, who jokingly ascribe the inconveniences of life - a delayed train, a broken laptop - to Mercury's retrograde. They know that Pisces are sensitive and Leos are self-involved and Geminis are kind of the worst. They follow astrology podcasts such as "Stars Like Us," buy zodiac-themed candles and fragrances and crystals, and share astrology memes from Instagram accounts such as Drunk Astrology and Not All Geminis.

I mean, come on. No one actually thinks that the stars and planets determine their personality. Except, the tumult of one's late twenties is because of Saturn's return, and right now, you're probably feeling that Scorpio season energy, and what if water and earth signs really do just get along better? 

"I call it getting into the woo," said Shanna Quinn, 37, a Chicagoan who checks four astrology apps daily. Woo, for that "woo-woo" stuff. 

For the past few weeks, I've been getting into the woo, too. A skeptic, I wanted to learn why seemingly everyone my age was looking to the stars. I downloaded all the apps. I got a few readings, and I am now the reluctant owner of four crystals. And I realized why it seems like everyone's so into astrology again, even if no one claims to believe in it, and it isn't real: It's kind of like psychotherapy plus magic. 

- - -

Astrology is an ancient art, but the modern horoscope came about in 1930, as a gimmick for the British newspaper the Sunday Express, which wanted something splashy in its pages after the birth of Princess Margaret. Astrologer R.H. Naylor wrote an article predicting that the princess would have "an eventful life" - bold prediction there - and that "events of tremendous importance to the royal family and the nation" would happen in her seventh year. That last one basically came true - in 1936, her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne, and her father, George VI, became king. And Naylor became a star astrologer with a weekly column. 

One enters the craft by taking courses, or training under experienced astrologers. The practice has undergone technological upgrades: There used to be a lot of math involved, but modern astrologers can pull up a natal chart in seconds by plugging your birth details into a software program.

"Astrology is a combination of myth and math," said astrologer Shelley Ackerman, publicity director for the International Society for Astrological Research.

There's a good chance some of the descriptions of me above may have resonated for you. Plenty of people are riddled with doubt, or have dated people who weren't right for us. 

That's how horoscopes work, said James Alcock, a professor who researches parapsychology at York University in Canada. It's a phenomenon called the Barnum Effect, named after circus founder P.T. Barnum. Basically: If an astrologer or palm reader makes a statement that could apply to many people in the course of a reading - something like, "You're generally a very open person, but sometimes find it hard to share things even with your closest friends" - someone is more likely to ascribe it to the teller's abilities.

Astrology is "part of my routine," said Katie Murtha, 29, from Cleveland, who reads the Elle magazine horoscopes online. "When it's right, it feels really interesting and kind of weird and magical. And if it's totally wrong, it's just something to laugh about."

So when Dave Campbell, the president of the American Federation of Astrologers, told me that my chart showed that I had a brother who was born when I was 3, and that age 19 was a bad year for me, he was correct. When he told me that the position of the asteroid Sappho in my chart could indicate that I'm a lesbian, or bisexual, he was not. 

"But one of my best friends is bi, and many of my male friends are gay," I volunteered, because that's the trick astrology plays on your mind: You're compelled to think of ways the predictions might be true. 

(P.S., to all of my bosses that are editing this story: Campbell also said the stars are aligned for me to get a raise next year.)

- - -

Eighty years later, Naylor's professional descendants are branching out into new mediums - ones that have a potential to earn a lot of money in the $2 billion "mystical services market." Bull and Moon is a recently launched app that purports to help users pick stocks according to their astrological signs. Collective Gain is a company that brings astrologers, intuitives and energy healers to the workplace, using staffers' astrological charts to help them work better together. 

"It is costing organizations money when people are showing up not engaged and not knowing who they are," said Lizzie Alberga, the company's founder and CEO. Some might balk at the notion of astrological readings in the workplace, but Alyssa Rogers, a 31-year-old Collective Gain astrologer, said they're a means of understanding "the complexity of a group and getting a team to understand that, you know, not everyone is the same. And the complexity is actually what makes that dynamic really strong," she said. 

Another astrology business takes its cues from the gig economy. 

"It's sort of like a cosmic ride-share app, if that makes sense," said Clark, of Sanctuary, which raised $1.5 million in venture capital. With the premium version, $19.99 a month, users can summon an astrologer for a 15-minute text message reading each month, on demand. I logged on, and was soon joined by an astrologer who, by request, focused the reading on relationships with my friends, which he said would be important next spring. 

"I'm sure most of your friends are women and/or quite pretty," wrote Arthur, and I wondered: Is my astrologer sucking up to me? It was not a generic prediction, he later told me. 

"The 11th house is friends and groups, and yours is ruled by Venus, the planet of love and beauty and feminine things," he said. "Yours is very close to an angle, it gives it a lot of extra strength." 

The astrologer, it turned out, was Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, a 29-year-old who had achieved internet fame after procuring the birth time of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to read her natal chart. (Dissecting celebrity natal charts is a popular hobby among astrologers, who are intimately familiar with President Donald Trump's: That he released his long-form birth certificate is "one of the few good things to come out of the birther controversy," Lipp-Bonewits said.) 

Lipp-Bonewits specializes in predictions. Here's one of his: The winner of the 2020 election, "whether it's Trump, whether it's one of the Democrats, is almost certainly going to be assassinated or die in office," he told me.

- - -

Because the apps are social and often free, they're like the gateway drug to the woo. Get sucked in, and you may find yourself researching Akashic Records or Human Design, or getting your aura photographed - like a cosmic Instagram filter. At Campbell's suggestion, I built a small altar at my work desk to help "manifest the positive" into my life. 

I covered a piece of gold tissue paper with talismans of good fortune, including a seashell to represent a vacation I hoped I could take, a check from a journalism award I'd recently won, and the New York Times bestseller list, for the book I hoped I would write one day ("Aim high," my editor said). I went online and bought my first crystal - moonstone, associated with my zodiac sign - which came with instructions to "activate" it by leaving it out in sunlight or a full moon, and then speaking my intentions to it. 

"I activate this stone," I whispered, so my colleagues wouldn't make fun of me. I was instructed to "feed" my altar every day with some pennies to "create positive energy." But by day four I had forgotten them, so I fed it some paper clips. 

That's what happens if you analyze the woo too much: You realize you seem totally nuts. Alcock, no fan of astrology, compares it to another nonscientific, ancient method for supposedly gaining insight: "If I said, 'Look, I just killed a fox and I've read its entrails, and you're going have a really great day,' most people would say, 'Oh my God, don't do that. That's just disgusting,' " he said. 

But as long as people aren't letting their lives revolve around astrology, they're not doing much harm. They may even be doing some good.

"It gets people to talk about their personality and their emotions and life experiences in a way that they usually wouldn't," said Tayla Jones, 23, who runs the meme account Drunk Astrology with her friend Sam Gorman, 24. Astrology makes expressing your feelings "kind of a game." It isn't about telling people who they will become, but rather, who they may not realize they already are. 

The messages I kept getting from the apps encouraged me to be introspective and gentle with myself. They required no leap of faith. 

"Tap into your inner voice. What is your gut telling you?" Sanctuary said. 

"It takes real courage to let another human see you," Co-Star said. 

"Your struggles may be the source of your greatest strength," the Pattern said.

Those didn't seem like horoscopes to me. They seemed like therapy. In fact, some of the things the apps had pinned on me were things I was already working on with a professional.

Astrology has seamlessly integrated with the wellness industry. Most people who are using these apps aren't trying to predict the future - they see it as a tool for self-discovery and emotional exploration. And its marketing has kept pace, pivoting from witchy spirituality to the blandly luxe aesthetic of Goop. It's talked about in the same breath as vitamins, yoga or a spa treatment. And for a generation that has struggled financially and emotionally but lacks access to affordable mental health care, some may even be using it as a cheap substitute. 

Even though some of the self-empowering platitudes in the astrology apps could have just as easily been found on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper, people could put more stock into them because of their medium. 

"There's a tendency that if there's an app for it, it somehow gives it more credibility," Alcock said. 

But the app horoscopes are just like the wrappers: momentarily poignant, but disposable. When you look at your natal chart, you're the center of the universe. But everyone else is the center of theirs.

There was one other thing several of the apps and astrologers could agree on, in my chart. Maybe this article has been in the works for 34 years, or perhaps since the beginning of time and the creation of the universe. Because 13.8 billion years later, the alignment of the stars and planets and constellations at the precise time of my birth in 1985 drew a distinct pattern.

My Mercury is in the eighth house, which rules Scorpio and is forming an aspect to Uranus, Rogers said. I have the natal chart of a person interested in the "occult, the things that are different, unconventional, maybe even taboo."

So, it was in the midst of working on a story about astrology that I found out my astrological chart indicates that I am interested in ... astrology. 

 

 

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