A glitch in Google Maps, once, sent dozens of cars out into an empty field in Denver. It was pouring rain, and the ground gave way to knee-deep mud. Picture it: an unwitting line of cars, following a GPS to nowhere, sinking slowly into the earth.
Or: note the words of a bemused Florida mayor, whose city of 95,000 was chronically dropping off Google Maps in 2010. “We woke up one morning and we didn't exist in the ether world,” he said at the time. Businesses whined; residents couldn’t find city hall. It had happened twice before. “We disappeared,” the mayor explained, indignant.
If Google might lead us to our doom, astrology apps say they can foretell it. This is far more comforting, especially because we know that they won’t. “You are not a body without organs,” the app Co–Star told me today, which is true, and somehow pleasing, in a mindless way. (Co–Star knows that I am not a body without organs because it has my time and date of birth, and maps out a daily star chart for me.) The app further informed me, as it does most every day, that I am troubled in all facets of my life (according to its analysis of NASA data), which is also nice to hear because now that is the stars’ problem, and not mine.
In the last year or so, the immense popularity of Co–Star and its many, many fellow fortune-telling apps got some air time in the media. There was a sense of amused relief in the first thinkpieces about the trend — like, at last, apps that are employing only familiar psychological tricks, and dressing them up in cool, grayscale aesthetics! At last, our phones are mapping out our futures, rather than determining them.
Then emerged a slew of haughty pieces to remind us that, no, astrology isn’t real, and in fact, its renewed popularity is perhaps the result of a grave generational uncertainty. But the whole phenomenon, the sentiment went, was a respite from the digital age; a charming spiritual oasis in the wasteland of the internet.
This all simmered down as the year took an apocalyptic turn, which — surprise, surprise! — our new overabundance of clairvoyant apps and platforms failed to predict, though it has sent them plenty more new, panicked customers. (We’d all rather hear that our fall is bad because mercury is in retrograde rather than, say, an ongoing plague.) And still, the new, and much more interesting, features of corporate, digital astrology have been ignored. They have set such fortune-telling on a collision course with the evils of everything else.
How have horoscope apps achieved such massive popularity, for instance? They have been bought by Disney or, in Co–Star’s case, raked in millions from venture capital firms; which is not a surprise, given the financial workings behind the inflated “app economy,” but does explain the vaguely corporate feel of them all, and their stumbling, offensive response to an uprising for racial justice.
Or, here is a conundrum that Co–Star presents, in its website copy: The app, it explains, knows your personality and life trajectory through “the methods of professional astrologers,” and yet also through its “powerful natural-language engine” and its algorithms, which make its horoscopes “hyper-personalized.” Are we meant, then, to be awed by the cosmos, or by the Co–Star app’s ability to crunch our data?
The privacy implications here are pretty standard of using most any app, of course, but there’s a particular irony to the idea of a soothsayer that makes money by selling off clients’ aggregated futures to the highest bidder. If you believe that Co–Star can actually divine all the intimacies of your life, well, then, you’ve just handed them over.
Really, though, Co–Star is just taking the same “personalized” algorithms behind the sinkholes of TikTok or the Instagram discover page and cloaking them in spectral pretenses. There’s something telling in how the platform flaunts its data prowess; how the mystical and the technical have been conflated in its language. But that’s typical: artificial intelligence and the “cloud” are often given a kind of reverence in corporate chatter, despite being very much of this world. It’s easier, after all, to hide the environmental costs of physical data centers if everyone believes their information is floating above them in the heavens.
Bolstered by addictive platform designs and quasi-spiritual branding, digital astrology continues to proliferate. There are unending apps to choose from; so many that Apple recently demoted “fortune telling apps” to the level of “burp” and “flashlight” apps, which it says have similarly oversaturated its market. They include Sanctuary, an astrology app which took the gig-economy route, offering “on-demand” consultations with astrologists; the “Uber for astrology!” it says. Nebula says it is an astrology “coach.” Struck is a new dating app, which claims to match users with others based on their astrological compatibility (“skeptics welcome!” is the motto). Numerology says, simply, it will give you “your life’s purpose.”
If these apps, like some have claimed, are really filling some undefined spiritual void, they’re doing so with language that sounds borrowed from the venture capitalists who invest in them. More likely, they’re just soothing for their empty, narcissistic assurances—not leading us into the mud, but promising us that there is a way out.
Anyone who has looked for a roommate online knows the difficulty of discerning who people are in real life, and nowhere is this more evident than in the search for a first-year college roommate. Imagine thousands of 18-year-olds posting repetitive introductions into a Facebook group, all in hopes of finding the person who will be their companion and confidant for the year(s) to come. Scrolling through infinite names and hometowns and hobbies, you start to question your own individuality. Are you, too, a circle on a screen who “likes to have fun but also study”?
I remember well the anxiety of the process, and the relief I felt when one girl, as we were exchanging polite small talk messages, asked me my Myers-Briggs personality type. She told me hers: “ENTJ! #commander4life,” and jokingly cited the historical figures who supposedly had her type: “Napoleon, Maggie Thatcher, Stalin I want to say? Lol my future looks bright.” I told her mine (ENFP) and said that according to “a website,” we were compatible. A day later she told me she decided to room with someone else.
This memory is funny mostly because she later became one of my closest friends, and it’s charming to look back at a time when four-letter tags were all we knew about each other. And although I haven’t taken a Myers-Briggs personality quiz in years, and would doubtfully cite it in my introduction to anyone, rereading these Facebook messages—little imprints of my past self—gave me a strange urge to take it again, if only to verify that I am still me.
In their early stages, personality tests were institutional tools, meant to increase efficiency and productivity by helping pick the right people for certain jobs. The first iteration, developed by American psychologist Robert S. Woodworth in the wake of World War I, was aimed at weeding out soldiers unfit for military duty because of their adverse emotional responses to bombings. (Whether there is actually a type of person capable of not reacting to the sight of a bomb exploding is uncertain). After the war, Woodworth’s test was adapted for corporate and organizational research. In this role, it was similarly exclusionary, preemptively rooting out workers with “unstable” or unsuitable dispositions.
Corporate and governmental use would remain a lucrative function of personality testing for decades to come. But as the number and variety of tests grew, they also became popular features of individual pursuits like self-help, social connection, and recreation. The Myers-Briggs personality type indicator (MBTI), developed in the 1940s, marked a turning point in this transformation. It consisted of a variety of questions about daily behavior and preferences, which reveal where you fall on the spectrum of four different dichotomies: Extraversion/ Introversion; Sensing/ Intuition; Thinking/ Feeling; and Judging/ Perceiving. The result gives you one of sixteen possible four-letter combinations, which defines your personality type.
The MBTI was created by a mother and daughter, both highly educated, but neither of them professional psychologists. Crucially, it was intended for mass audiences, who readily embraced the simple parameters and enticing promises of self-discovery. It inspired dozens of pop psychology books on the test’s romantic and professional dividends, and its terminology slowly crept into the mouths of regular Americans, whether they themselves used the MBTI or not.
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the personality type quiz. Beyond satiating the need to know ourselves, it provides an architecture overlaying our identities and establishing our relationship to those around us. Type isn’t just a personality indicator, it’s a measure of romantic compatibility, a predictor of professional destiny, a ticket into internet forums, and a conversation starter. Most importantly, it’s the ultimate melding of once irreconcilable poles—the urge to be unique and the desire to be understood.
The magic of the MBTI is that it affirms our interior subjectivity while wrapping us in the comfort of externally valid, objective categories. On one hand, the test’s questions rely entirely on how you see yourself, rather than observing how you behave or inquiring how others see you. Still, no matter how complex or muddled or wavering your self-image, the result will always be four neat letters that you share with thousands of other people.
That the Myers-Briggs test has been repeatedly rejected by scientific professionals and other skeptics is irrelevant—they were never going to stand a chance in the face of our desperate search for meaning and clarity on our own essence. Its banishment from the scientific world has hardly decreased its presence in ours—if anything, the personality test has mutated into even less meaningful, but more popular forms.
BuzzFeed quizzes, alignment charts, “tag yourself” memes, and questionnaires that determine your likeness to fictional characters have put the top-down, confined self-discovery of Myers-Briggs on steroids. Instead of fitting us into one of 16 categories, these personality tests filter their diagnoses through many layers of fiction, spitting out an answer that is satisfying (who doesn’t like knowing whether they’re a Hufflepuff or a Gryffindor?) and decipherable to others, but largely useless for introspection. And these are only small components of the world of referential self-construction. Most of our online presence, while being incredibly narcissistic, is in a perpetual state of addressing and seeking validation from others.
Theodor Adorno, ever the pessimist, wrote about the twentieth century as the “age of the individual’s liquidation.” In the twenty-first century, the individual is at once dissolved and infinite. Our projected selves are many—they thrive in our screen names, email accounts, Twitter handles, LinkedIn profiles, blogs, and personal websites; they metastasize in the Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Harry Potter characters that we “are.” In the constant, suffocating presence of all these ghosts, what’s another four letters?
what we’re looking at
Meet the Customer Service Reps for Disney and Airbnb Who Have to Pay to Talk to You: Some really insane reporting on Arise, a horrific customer service company in ProPublica.