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Mining the Stars

ELEANOR TAYLOR | FEATURES



Invented nearly 4 000 years ago, the ancient practice of astrology has come in and out of fashion at various points of time but now more than ever thanks to technological innovation astrology is a mainstream practice.


Human civilization has always been confused and fascinated with the stars. In a time before watches, measuring the sky’s movements enabled people to create daily, weekly, monthly and even yearly cycles through which they could organise their tasks. A 17 000-year-old mammoth tusk from Ukraine appears to have had the lunar phase engraved in it as a calendar. The Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel which is 40 000 years old has been interpreted as a depiction of the Leo Zodiac sign. These are examples of how astrology and astronomy which were originally viewed as the same thing, could be used for practical and artistic or religious purposes. Things really kicked off for astrology when the Sumerian people went through and named constellations and ascribed different properties to the planets that they were aware of. This was about 8 000 years ago but although the Sumerians had some thoughts about celestial bodies and wrote down omens, they didn’t have any real organised system for astrology. Therefore, we normally date meaningful divination as beginning in the Babylonian period when priests would use omens from the sky to determine the will of the gods. The gods also had their own planets to be associated with. After this the Greeks took astrology and ran with it, with Ptolemy giving us the names we use to this day for zodiac signs and planets.


In the Middle ages people suddenly realised maths existed and this enabled them to calculate more accurate charts with planetary positions and angles. Unfortunately, the church gained more power and the Inquisition occurred with astrology becoming a criminal offence. During the Enlightenment period philosophers promoted scepticism and science to regain control of society from the Catholic church. Astrologers used pseudonyms now because the practice was seen as entertainment. Then in the 20th century there was a revival of mysticism and Carl Jung started using astrology in his research. From the ‘20s onwards, horoscopes were mass-produced in newspapers and magazines but generally weren’t taken seriously. Detached from its origins and simplified into 12 basic predictions for the entire population, astrology was a trivial hobby. The daily horoscope format we know and love today began in 1930 when the Sunday Express printed a birth horoscope for Princess Margaret.


Today, astrology is generally viewed as a secular spiritual practice, an alternative to mainstream religions such as Christianity.


According to The Atlantic in 2018 traffic to horoscope websites had increased 150% more than in 2017. Apps such as Co-Star have created ease in access for people interested in astrology. To access a treasure trove of astrological predictions all you need to do is input your date and time of birth. Apps and websites do the rest of the work from here and can generate endless natal charts and daily charts which are often split into certain areas such as: relationship, financial, emotional and more. Most people are aware of their zodiac or sun sign and may also know their moon and ascendant signs. Astrology can at times feel like a bit of a rabbit hole; you begin knowing you are a Gemini, then discover that your ascendant is Sagittarius and your moon is Virgo. This is a gateway into the rest of your planetary alignments. Further complicating things are phases such as Void of Course - you make weird unpredictable choices, and Mercury in Retrograde - the subject of infinite memes.


There are a multitude of reasons people develop an interest in astrology. According to a 1982 study by Graham Tyson, individuals experiencing intense stress will use astrology as a coping mechanism even though they would not normally be inclined to believe in it. In the 21st century we faced unprecedented challenges; a pandemic, late-stage capitalism, unaffordable costs of living, global warming and big tech to name just a few. Millennials are now the most stressed generation and honestly, that makes sense. In a world where young people are disenfranchised and feel a lack of control over their lives, astrology provides not only a distraction but a way to regain autonomy and make sense of our place in the universe.


Astrologer Randon Rosenbohm says astrology is “for the girls and gays”. Although gender biology is a disputed area of science there has been a lot of research suggesting that women are more empathetic while men tend to be more analytical relying on hard science and data to make decisions. This is where the idea of women having some natural womanly intuition comes in. The locus of control is a psychological theory about how individuals perceive the control they have over their own lives. Having an external locus of control means that you believe there is some sort of greater system in control. Religion and the belief in an omniscient God are one example of how someone could have an external locus of control. Women have historically been more religious than men and are more likely to have an external locus of control. The reason behind this is often attributed to historical oppression. In a time when women were effectively owned by the men around them, faith provided them with security and a way to deal with the fact that they had no personal autonomy. Having an internal locus of control means that you believe you determine your own life and that you are not bound by fate. Men are more likely to have an internal locus of control and this could be attributed to the fact that in contrast to women, men have always had more power over their own lives. It is important to point out that gender psychology is not a concrete science and should be approached with scepticism, but it does reveal interesting trends for different people. Regardless of the psychological differences between men and women, it is clear that women are the consumer base for the self-help world. Astrology is overwhelmingly targeted towards women. Classic brief daily horoscopes have been found for a long time in magazines such as Elle and Cosmopolitan, two women’s lifestyle publications. Up until relatively recently, Huffington Post’s horoscope column was found in the women’s voices section on their website. Astrology has broken into the mainstream but as a result of the long term targeting of women by astrology publications the entire practice is often viewed as something feminine.


Do you hate [Insert any “girly” thing here] or are you just sexist and being dismissive of something because women enjoy it? Twilight, romance novels, chick flicks, skincare and makeup. These are all stereotypically feminine things associated with teenagers and young women. These are also all things which are often dismissed by men for being touchy-feely, and stupid. Astrologer Danny Larkin believes that straight men are taught from a young age to ‘man up’ and not be emotional, so an area like astrology which requires introspection into your emotions is often unattractive to them. In contrast, due to their history of marginalization women and queer people find greater comfort in astrology because it provides a sense of control and they are more inclined to reflect on their feelings.


Many astrologers consider Co-Star and other astrology apps to be inaccurate and accuse them of simplifying astrology. In June of 2020, Co-Star came under fire for memeing the black lives matter protests with an unbelievably insensitive text post about what each sign would be like protesting. For example, Virgo “Stocks up on masks to hand out”. One month later in an interview, co-founder and CEO Banu Guler revealed that Co-Star deliberately sends negative notifications to its users in order to build resilience and “troll” them. Users were predictably angry about this development and the idea that Co-Star employees were sabotaging their days for a laugh upset people who genuinely believed in the accuracy and reliability of Co-Star.


According to their website, Co-Star runs on a “freemium model”, where all features are free apart from paid readings and some additional features. Co-Star also states that they do not sell data to third parties. At the same time however, Co-Star’s privacy policy states that data is shared with employees, third parties and other businesses. Interestingly, Co-star's privacy policy is an exact copy of Wordpress’s with the only difference being the company name. Data privacy has steadily become more important to people since Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and for good reason. In a study by Francesco Bonchi, algorithmic bias privileges certain groups such as men over women in search results. One tangible result of this is that when women search for jobs online, lower-paying positions will be advertised to them. When apps collect data and then share this data with search engines there are unequal consequences for different people. Furthermore, astrology apps which enable compatibility charts and social features have access to not only your birth date, address, and name but also to your friends. Therefore, the lack of transparency about how your data is used by any app should be a cause for concern for its users.


Horoscope apps are not the only culprits here but the amount of detailed information about your personality and life you give to them means that they can be used to mine an insane amount of personal data. Most horoscope apps offer personal services with tarot and psychic readings. If a user asks about their health it's possible they could be unknowingly volunteering their medical information. One app Chaturanga promotes confidential readings where they encourage users to ask questions about their finances, careers, and relationships. The longer you use one of these services the more data they will accumulate on you. This is especially problematic for women who are more likely to be harassed and doxxed online and are also more likely to be victims of identity theft. People of colour are more likely to be subject to government surveillance. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security is notorious for using social media to track the activities of activists especially in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.


Minorities use astrology apps the most and they are also the people who are the most at risk when it comes to data. The horoscope app market is worth 2.2 billion dollars. We need to remember that astrology apps such as Co-star are more than spiritual gurus in app form, they are first and foremost companies which exist to turn a profit. Given how much data we freely give these companies, I’d be surprised if they weren't exploiting it.

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