Why is this interesting? - The Tell Me About Me Edition

On astrology, tarot, and mediated conversations

Larissa Pham is a New York-based artist and writer. She first came on my radar via friend of WITI Kyle Chayka. I’ve loved her work for The Paris Review, and she can also be seen in POETRY, Art in America, Bookforum, Guernica, The Nation, among others. We’re happy to have her writing today on technology, personalization, intimacy and understanding ourselves. - Colin (CJN)

Larissa here. I’ve been so sensitive lately. Not in terms of physical sensation, but around my place in the universe—I feel buffeted by too many cosmic winds. I’m see-sawing, vacillating, a leaf landing on water. Alleviating this condition, or perhaps exacerbating it, have been the weirdly prescient Co–Star (an astrology app) notifications that pop up on my phone around 11am each morning. Today I got “Trust your gut”; yesterday, “Be loyal to the pulse of your inner world”; over the weekend, “Believe in yourself” and “Nobody can tell you what you should be feeling”.

The aggression of Co–Star notifications has become a meme, and as notifications go, mine this week weren’t particularly mean—after a fight with my boyfriend some time ago, I was absolutely waylaid by a notification approximating “Is it love you want, or simply possession?”—but they are affirming what I’m feeling. Told “Trust your gut,” I feel permission to be more certain of my own convictions, not that that’s really bad advice for anyone. I feel seen. Comforted. So even when the notifications are rude—or don’t land, which might be worse—I keep going back, hoping for that recognition.

So many of my friends and peers seem to be after this sensation of being seen. (Or to be more jocular about it, perhaps read.) In Co–Star, the daily notifications and horoscope breakdowns are fun, but the real meat of the app is in its super-personalized, astrological roasting. The subject, of course, is you. The pleasure of much of astrology, at least for a layperson like me, is in being told about one’s self: in my chart are my strengths and my flaws, laid out neatly, their depths accessible with just a little bit of divining. There’s a deliciousness in the description.

Why is this interesting?

The recent popularity of astrology is one of the easier ways into this topic, which to me isn’t as much about how we’re looking for this insight but why we want to be told about us. I’m thinking about horoscopes, yes, but also tarot and talk therapy and at-home DNA tests and niche memes, all of these phenomena built on this kind of emotional recognition. Why is it so satisfying to have someone tell us who we are, what we need, and how we’re feeling?

Everywhere you look there are products that purport to give us insight into ourselves. You can take a personalized vitamin cocktail in the morning, listen to a Spotify Discover Weekly playlist at work, and come home to custom hair care in the shower and a made-for-you acne routine to dab on before bed. Writer Amanda Mull describes this rampant personalization as a marketing trend, writing: “These brands have attracted millions of shoppers (and millions of dollars in venture-capital funding) by tapping into something powerful: the idea that we’re all fancy and special enough to have something made just for us.”

These businesses work, Mull continues, based on our willingness to offer up information. Like talk therapy, personalized hair care succeeds because we’re so happy to yap on and on about ourselves. But I wonder about the other side of that desire. It seems that we offer up our information in search of insight, whether that’s whether we actually do have a gluten sensitivity or our birth time, to get an accurate rising sign. What comes out is a product, yes—a hair mask, a facial serum—but it’s also something intended to illuminate some truths about ourselves, information about us that we weren’t capable of accessing.

Recently, a friend gifted me a deck of tarot cards, and on nights in, I’ve been learning how to give my roommates readings. I’m no expert, but between my limited experience and the resources of Biddy Tarot, I’ve found the act of reading someone’s cards to be a tender, intimate thing. There’s a real care that goes into the act of description, a kind of tenderness that comes out of charting the territory of being. We all want to be loved, the same way we all want to be seen. One night, a friend with a new job drew the Ace of Wands—a perfect card for someone starting a new thing, and so we talked about it: how it felt for her, how it felt like a sign. Tarot isn’t divination, so much as it is an attempt at description: charting possible paths, possible feelings, asking its adherents to prick up their ears and listen. It’s that listening that becomes the first step toward real connection—between yourself and the world, between yourself and another person.

I wonder if we could use these conversations we have with apps as a bridge to talk to each other—I’m thinking of how much fun it is to go over a friend’s astrological birth chart—or better yet, take our connections offline entirely. (LP)

Personalized Data Overreach of the Day:

Spotify’s 2016 ad campaign drew a lot of praise—and a lot of raised eyebrows about their data collection. The posters, featured in subways, billboards, and on buildings, are a great example of how data can be used for effective storytelling (and pictured below is my favorite one). But skeptical, privacy-conscious users raised the question of the ethics of such a move—even scrubbed of identifiers, the ads still publicly aired users’ listening habits to a national audience, mining this invasion of privacy for humor. If Spotify knows this much about us, who else is listening? (LP)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Larissa (LP)