Google co-founder Larry Page popularized the term ‘moonshots.’ But venture capitalists, apparently, are looking to the stars.
An app called Co-Star, which provides slick digital versions of horoscopes and astrological birth charts, has raised $5 million in funding. An investor who put money into an ‘Uber for astrological readings’ company expresses excitement about the $2.1 billion market for ‘mystical services.’ Erin Griffith, the author of a recent New York Times feature on the subject, took a lighthearted angle toward the subject while nevertheless acknowledging that there really is business potential. Millennial women, she writes, have ‘traded [astrology’s] psychedelic new-wave stigma for modern Instagrammy witch vibes.’
This may seem like a ridiculous place for venture dollars to go. But here’s my reaction: Please, let VCs keep investing in astrology! Have you seen what else they put their money into?
Electric scooter companies, which have turned a stroll down Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles into a terrifying real-life game of Frogger, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Sure, it can make a trip a bit shorter. But there are invariably far too many companies in the space, many are probably quite overvalued, they’re making roads less safe, and meanwhile American cities’ woeful lack of public transportation (which could solve much of the problem that scooters do) is going unaddressed.
I work in the advertising industry. I couldn’t even give you an estimate for how much venture funding has gone into ad-tech and social media companies that collect creepy levels of personal data and that becomes vulnerable to bad actors and manipulation as a result of shoddy privacy practices. The same goes for the companies that are being used to enact mass surveillance. If an investor is choosing between an app that will tell me how my Cancer moon sign will affect my mood today, or one that will send a drone to spy on me, I’ll take the gimmicky astro stuff.
Let us not forget that Theranos, thanks to the charisma of CEO Elizabeth Holmes – once hailed as, perhaps, the next Steve Jobs – raised over $400 million for a medical device company that scientists had dismissed early on as unlikely to ever work. Investors didn’t listen. And, as the book Bad Blood and a recent HBO documentary explained, Theranos’s malfunctioning tests could produce results that might compel patients to make very misguided medical decisions. Lives were at stake.
This is, of course, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek argument. Investors looking to back surveillance or medical technology are unlikely to direct the same funds toward an astrology app. But the point still stands: As much as Silicon Valley likes to think it’s at the pinnacle of science-based empiricism and slick ‘disruptive’ business models, it’s prone to just as much irrationality and magical thinking as your friend who consults a psychic before job interviews. Psychology professor Clay Routledge, who I interviewed for a Vox article last year about the tension between Silicon Valley’s dislike of organized religion with its own fervent religiosity, has written extensively about humans’ inevitable irrational sides, and our need to acknowledge them. ‘The irony is that a lot of times it’s people who actually are religious explicitly, and know that, that are better at switching between the two modes,’ Routledge told me at the time.
There’s plenty of irrationality in tech investing: Y Combinator founder Paul Graham famously said, ‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.’ He has since said he was joking. But it’s nevertheless a telling statement about what investors think constitutes a recipe for success in the startup world. And frequently, these leaps of faith have an ugly side: playing into bias, blind spots, and even outright ignorance of large portions of the market. Sometimes, technology that is built with one audience in mind may turn out to be dangerous for another; ride-hailing apps, for example, initially had few of the provisions for people with disabilities that had been mandated by the municipal taxi companies whose business they were displacing.
Frankly, the most surprising thing about investors’ sudden interest in backing astrology apps is that they don’t feed into Silicon Valley’s mythology, if only because the customer base is overwhelmingly female. Often the founders are, too. Besides, at least for now (as it may well be a fad), astrology seems to have actual business potential. If that’s irrational, well, I’ll take it. I’m an Aquarius rising, after all.