In the second episode of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Series season 2, a seed of interest between a magazine writer and a hostess blossomed into an unrequited love affair over a plate of ささみチーズカツ (cheese-stuffed chicken cutlet). The cupid was not the soulful and stoic Master of the diner, but Ganymede, the Greek cup-bearer of the gods that was placed among the stars as Aquarius. Buoyed by a shared penchant for astrology and katsu, this destined meet-cute on the precipice of romance should have hit it off. Alas, a phantom variable was not taken into account: His heart was saying yes, but her horoscope was saying no.
Planetary alignments have paved the way for divination and fed fantasies of romance since time immemorial. Once relegated to the back of women’s magazines or the cartoon section in the newspaper as a space filler (albeit one that was read religiously), horoscopes have now found a devoted audience in the digital space, thanks to apps that rely on algorithmic and live readings. With individualised birth charts allowing for endless compatibility pairings and personal forecasts, the booming business of astrology now caters for each person, not each sign.
An in-depth blueprint of your life can now be accessed via The Pattern app, a “frighteningly” accurate assessment of your personality based on your gender, place of birth and the time you were born. The response among netizens and celebrities has been astronomical: A flabbergasted Channing Tatum, who has 7.7 million Twitter followers, clamoured about the accuracy of the app with the caption: “You know what, Pattern people, you should just call me. If you know so much, you know how to DM me. I need answers right now.”
The Pattern stands out among a constellation of apps as it eschews all mentions of astrology and star signs, providing a self-analysis not unlike the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs personality test. Avoiding the perfunctory lingo about the sun or “Mercury is in retrograde”, your results are divided into three main sections — instincts, growth and relationships — which are then broken up into more subsections of your stable traits. Daily notifications urge users to “Go Deeper”, delving into fears and anxieties, or discover the various cycles affecting the global community.
For those who turn to the omniscient for clarity and celestial guidance, The Pattern can seem like a godsend, or your worst offender. The frank insights read like a counselling session with Dr Sean Maguire in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, or unsolicited advice from an intimate witness of your childhood.
“It hasn’t been easy for you,” our first slide of the app proclaimed, as if helping us to rationalise and recognise the gravity of what we have lost.
Like a belated consolation, this invisible voice continued, “From an early age, you may have thought that you weren’t good enough, or believed that something was inherently wrong with you. To be on par with others, you may have felt you needed to compensate and prove yourself worthy. But this lingering sense of being less gives you drive, discipline and capacity to work hard.”
Hold on. How did this artificial intelligence-powered app, which we signed up out of idle interest and has no connection to our past, know?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the power of evoking memories. The Pattern’s insights appeal to even the most hardened horoscope sceptics because it contextualises one’s random life events and emotions by placing them in imaginary indexed shelves. Instead of offering rosy predictions on your health, career or love life (for example, “Sagittarius, a divine union is on the cards!”), The Pattern subverts these tropes by doling out unvarnished truths as well as the doom and gloom with a reassuring pat on the back. It is as much a tool for introspection and self-improvement as it is fodder for memes.
The amalgam of stress and overwhelming uncertainty during these pandemic times is an ailment for which astrology and self-help apps can seem like an ideal balm. As we continue to contend with more unpredictability than usual, from worrying when we will get vaccinated or whether we would lose our jobs tomorrow, it is not hard to see why we are seeking answers beyond the physical world. People are desperate to find meaning and solace in things that would give them a semblance of normalcy or an escape — so they know that they are not stuck in this bleak moment forever.
Naysayers and vociferous critics would laugh off these insights as basic generalisations (because they are so vague and general, they apply to virtually anyone) or a facet of human’s unrelenting capacity for confirmation bias, a tendency to favour information that resasserts one’s beliefs or hypotheses. Yet, more millennials and the tech-savvy are gravitating towards astrology apps as a cheap substitution of therapy. This broad cultural acceptance may have something to do with an obvious paradox: Millennials are so comfortable tethering between scepticism and belief because they spend much of their lives on the internet, a realm that is real and unreal simultaneously.
Preoccupations with personality inevitably slide into questions of compatibility. The success of The Pattern, which recently crossed the 15-million user mark, has prompted founder Lisa Donovan to create a dating feature within the app called Connect. In this recently launched beta version, users can run “bonds”, which categorises your potential partners into these qualitative designations: soulmate, extraordinary, powerful, meaningful, complex, delicate or challenging. “Right out of the gate, you can communicate if you’ve had a karmic link,” the tech CEO and former American YouTuber enthused.
Connect’s methodology of bringing people together in a deeper way would have yielded a different ending for the star-crossed couple in Midnight Diner if it had been invented earlier. Having said that, no matter how personalised the app gets, it can never really know you. Of course, it does not hurt to entertain a horoscope’s tip (like wearing a striped shirt to a date) once in a while but the idea is not to entrust your life to a higher power — it is to find refuge amid the hullabaloo and think through all the muck. These days, modern astrology apps are more of a convenient framework that rarely tells you what you will become, but often helps you realise what you already are.
At the time of writing, The Pattern pinged us with a daily reminder to “trust that it is okay to be different as it is part of who you are”. For a machine, that is not the worst advice the universe has offered so far.
This article first appeared on Aug 2, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.