Tech bets on ‘mystical services’

Last year, Americans spent $2.2 billion on “mystical services.” We’re talking palm readings, tarot cards, “aura photography,” and a zillion astrology sites that divulge what Jupiter has to say about asking your boss for a raise.

Wild, right? Especially since you can open literally any women’s magazine or site and read your monthly destiny for free.

The industry has steadily grown over the last five years as the economy recovers and consumers more readily adopt alternative practices. But as this L.A. Times piece explains, this has usually been a scattered industry of solo practitioners, outdated websites, and 1-800 numbers. Now, Silicon Valley is ready to take Ms. Cleo into the future.

Sanctuary, a digital astrology startup from Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Ventures Incubator, just raised $1.5 million in venture capital. (That entire sentence is whack, for multiple reasons). The company specifically launched last Wednesday, i.e., “the dawn of the new astrological year, when Pisces gives way to Aries in the astral cycle.”

For $19.99 a month, you can book weekly, on-demand chat-readings with one of 30 live astrologers. “Texting is the language of millennials and younger people today, so we really wanted to harness that,” says Sanctuary co-founder Rick Clark.

More and more, newcomers bring sophisticated business practices to the woo-woo industry. That’s why there are crystal subscription boxes and “intuitive business” consultants (who, no joke, use tarot cards to tell CEOs how to run their companies).

Then there’s the newly-launched Begin To Heal, a holistic health network of over 200 licensed wellness practitioners. Basically, it’s like ClassPass but for services like reiki, energy healing, and “spiritual coaching.”

Heck, women are quitting Vogue to become full-time astrology founders.

They all seem keen to capitalize on younger audiences dabbling in wellness, an industry increasingly moving toward pseudo-religious rituals. They’re making it easier and faster,  centralizing it into efficient platforms. But, is there something to be said about appropriating carnival culture? (What’s next, 3D scanning your palm to a digital fortune teller?) Or is really not any different than what tech did with meditation?

It’s different because astrology dangles the promise of guidance. Millennials are the most stressed generation--overworked, tech-addicted, lonely, and burdened with school debt. At the same time, they’re less reliant on religion yet still crave the direction and meaning it offers. They can’t necessarily afford a life coach or mental health professional, so they turn to the more affordable alternative: psychics and astrologists, who offer a sense of calm and order in an increasingly chaotic world. They are the emotional support dogs of quackery, passing off as intimate futurists when they can’t even predict the weather.

I mean, how do you vouch for the universal “intuitiveness” of the stranger on the end of the line? Who’s verifying these people?

When asked if they actually believe in the power pushing their product, Sanctuary’s founders said they prefer to describe astrology “as more of a spark for self-reflection, or social connection, than a manifestation of cosmic destiny.” The president then goes to say he wants to provide “meaning” and optimism for those who seek it, not that he would ever personally rely on it.

As he explains, “For me, it might be going to my therapist on a weekly basis, which I do; for others it’s talking to astrologers.”

-- Rina Raphael, Fast Company

News & Trends:

  • CBD beauty boom: Beboe, the "Hermès of marijuana" is the latest cannabis brand to compete in the skincare sector. (Fashionista)

  • 7-11 tests a Whole Foods-esque makeover: The chain opened its first “lab store,” stocked with organic, gluten-free bites and turmeric celery slushies.(Eater)

  • Meanwhile, Whole Foods launches a bodega: This one’s got an açaí bowl station and kombucha on tap. (Eater)

  • Landmark bill would ban toxic ingredients in makeup: The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act would be the first of its kind in the country.  (FastCo)

  • College students start Self-Care Clubs: More than 40% of college students report being so depressed “it’s difficult to function.”  The DePaulia)

  • Dyson wants to be a wellbeing company: That’s why it’s now making lamps. (Glossy)

  • Doctors might soon “prescribe” fruits and veggies: A new study finds that “prescriptions” for healthy foods could prevent millions of cases of chronic diseases--and save more than $100 billion in healthcare costs. (FastCo)

  • Amazon debuts skincare line: Like Glossier, but with muted greens. (Glamour)

  • Milk sales plummeted by $1.1 billion last year: But the dairy alternative market--oat, nut, soy, etc.--is booming. (FastCo)

  • GoFundMe blocks controversial cancer clinic: The tech giant banned a fundraising campaign that would support “cutting-edge” alternative treatments such as “high-dose vitamin infusions” and “ozone therapy” for cancer patients. (FastCo)

  • Silicon Valley takes on menopause: Telehealth giant Ro launches Rory, a personalized treatment service for women going through midlife changes. (FastCo)

Deeper dives

Here’s what that $110 baby swaddle for adults is actually like
My fearless colleague Liz Segran tests out the Sleep Pod, a cocoon-like device designed to make you feel like you’re being hugged all night long. Created by a former Apple and Harley Davidson designer, it’s meant to mimic the pressure of weighted blankets but without “getting squashed like a panini.” (FastCo)

Humans are for the wealthy, screens are for the poor
Tech used to be symbolic of wealth, but as devices become more affordable and human labor more expensive, it's now the opposite. If you're not rich, your life--including healthcare, education, even companionship--is being dominated by computers. Meanwhile, the top percent "have grown afraid of screens," opting for tech-free private schools, physical toys in lieu of tablets, and human caretakers. "Conspicuous human interaction—living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email—has become a status symbol." (NYT)

Amazon might soon put you on a diet
Futurologist Amy Webb argues that as our homes become more connected, our devices will have even more rule over our lives. By giving them all our biometric data, the machines might someday refuse us our snacks. “The microwave decides you should be on a diet and won’t let you eat popcorn,” predicts Webb. “The washer decides you can get another day out of those jeans. Your garage decides you should walk to work.” (FastCo)

Amy Schumer gets real on pregnancy
Amy Schumer’s new Netflix special Growing, in my opinion, is her best one yet. This time around, our raunchy heroine—suffering from acute morning sickness—candidly tackles how much it sucks to work, live up to “precious” pregnancy expectations, and basically do anything. That she’s going through this at the same time Meghan Markle parades her perfectly polished bump everywhere doesn’t help. It’s a refreshingly honest take that cements Schumer’s standing as someone who should really be my best friend. Watch her discuss her tough pregnancy on Late Night:

Is ‘doing nothing’ the best self-care advice?
Jenny Odell, author of  How to Do Nothing, explains how two dueling forces--social media and the cult of productivity--wreak havoc on our psyche. But, she doesn’t think the answer is simply to unplug and do nothing. Instead, we need to fill that time with worthwhile pursuits that aren’t goal-oriented. “People need meaning in their lives,” she says. “All of these people reaching for these digital detox books is an inkling that there's a crisis around that.” (GQ)

Women’s pain is different from men. So why don’t we have different drugs?
Men and women have different biological pathways for chronic pain, and yet they’re lumped together when it comes to treatment. Why? Because most drug development studies are done on male animals, and subsequently, only male pain is addressed. In this piece, researchers make the case of widening test samples, as well as note new drugs specifically targeting chronic pain in women.  (Wired)

Finally, a horror movie about wellness festivals
Flower crowns are creepy.

Quote of the week:

“I think diet culture has been rebranded as wellness culture, which is a much more stylish thing for people to take part in. Body positivity is so hot right now. People want to look enlightened in that way. But people still don't want to be fat.” (L.A. Times)

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