Inside Randonautica, the App Leading Zoomers to Discover Rainbows, Dead Bodies, and Hidden Treasures

All I found was a barbecue grill

Illustration: Erik Blad

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m staring at someone’s barbecue grill. I didn’t intend or expect to spend my Saturday examining a stranger’s Char-Griller, but here I am, taking a picture of the grill while the presumptive owner asks me just what exactly I’m doing.

If I was being honest, I would tell him, “Sir, a smartphone app called Randonautica sent me here, to your grill, in order to figure out if this cooking instrument has some greater cosmic significance to me. You see,” I’d tell him, “this app randomly generates coordinates to check out, and then you go check them out. For whatever reason, this time, the app chose the exact location of your grill, and that’s why I’m taking a picture of your grill, trying to figure out exactly what the grill means to me.”

Instead, I waved my hand meekly and headed off to go visit my next randomly generated set of coordinates.

This is, more or less, the experience I’ve had over the past month using Randonautica, a smartphone app that bills itself as “the world’s first quantumly generated Choose Your Own Adventure reality game.”

Randonautica is the brainchild of Joshua Lengfelder, a first-time app developer and active Reddit user. (Multiple interview requests sent to Randonautica’s press contact were not returned.)

A little over a year ago, Lengfelder posted a Telegram-based chatbot he had developed to the r/DimensionJumping subreddit. The Fatum Project, he called it, was his attempt to “research unknown spaces outside predetermined probability-tunnels of the holistic world.” With the help of donations and community volunteers, Lengfelder released Randonautica, a standalone app for iOS and Android, in February.

The premise of the app is straightforward: You give Randonautica your location, and Randonautica uses a random number generator to find a random location. You head to that location, you see what you see, and you’re encouraged to share your experience on the Randonautica subreddit or on Twitter. And unlike other slick apps du jour, Randonautica looks and feels refreshingly home-brewed.

The Fatum Project, he called it, was his attempt to “research unknown spaces outside predetermined probability-tunnels of the holistic world.”

But underneath that simple premise lies a complicated theory — and what Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, calls a practical application of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Theoretically speaking, by going to the randomized locations pinpointed by Randonautica, you are also creating an alternate universe in which one version of you does not visit that random spot. In other words, by leaving your fate to the randomized numbers in an app, you’re splitting the trajectory of the universe. Sounds ambitious. In practice, you’re just going to a random spot on the sidewalk where there just happens to be a grill.

Randonautica seems perfectly matched for our current pandemic reality: Since we can’t go where we want to, why not try an app that might show us some cool things right under our noses? Maybe that’s why Randonautica has seen a huge surge in new users over the past few months — subscribers to r/randonauts went from just under 14,000 in April to over 105,000 by July according to Subreddit Stats, a third-party Reddit metrics platform.

In April, the subreddit saw just a handful of posts chronicling “Randonauting” discoveries over a week. Today, there are hundreds of people posting their “reports” to the subreddit every day.

Most Randonautica adventures resembled mine: Some users found themselves stumbling upon calming vistas while others happened upon fridges, abandoned furniture, and all kinds of graffiti. In my own travels, I’ve found a giant metal plate covering up a hole on a bridge, an empty parking lot, some old railroad ties — objects I’d otherwise overlook but now have a newfound appreciation for.

“I find places where no one else is; places where I can think about anything I feel like thinking about. Where I’m no longer boxed in,” Jorge Soderberg, a regular Randonautica user, told me over Discord. “Beyond the barriers of cultural pressure, there exists these curious bubbles of reality. Places where no one has gone before under the same circumstances. Liminal zones not yet explored but deeply rich in meaning, but only if you have the eyes to see it.”

In some ways, Randonauting is just a more-structured, app-mediated version of going for a walk to clear your head.

But Randonauts are reporting bizarre coincidences too. In recent days, users have posted about the app’s uncanny ability to bring them to rainbows and pretty flowers, rediscover an old cemetery where they used to smoke weed, and even reveal the lost location of their great grandmother’s old house. This eerie sense of coincidence, however, is all by design.

As you dig into Randonautica, it’s hard not to get a sense that the app wants to be something more than just an idle curiosity. Yes, it’s an app that just generates a random point to visit, but it also suggests an almost-mystical significance to that random point.

It does this by first throwing a lot of terminology around, such as “quantum generation,” “entropy source,” “z-score,” and “power.” The app labels destinations into three categories: “attractors,” or points with a high concentration of randomly generated points; “voids,” or points with a low concentration of randomly generated points; and “anomalies,” which are the strongest voids and attractors in your area. Randonautica implies that, somehow, there’s a pattern to this randomness — something shaping it, guiding it. And this is where Randonautica plays a clever little trick on its users, suggesting that they, actually, are the ones influencing the randomness.

Users have posted about the app’s uncanny ability to bring them to rainbows and pretty flowers, rediscover an old cemetery where they used to smoke weed, and even reveal the lost location of their great grandmother’s old house.

The app also asks you to “set your intention” — to think about what you’d like to see at this random point. Based on the Randonaut subreddit, users’ intentions can be as broad as “calm” or “beauty” or as specific as “weed” and “dog.” The “theory” behind this “intention-setting” — based on a widely criticized and now-defunct parapsychology lab at Princeton — is that the human mind can influence randomness and thus manifest whatever it is you’re thinking about.

“This is where I get off the train,” says Carroll. “You should not believe that your intentions or your desires, your hopes and dreams, have any influence whatsoever over quantum mechanical measurement outcomes.”

Still, day after day, the most popular posts on r/randonauts are ones of people finding incredible coincidences. Someone set their intention to “lost key” and allegedly found a hotel keycard. Another set “money” and allegedly found a pile of coins. The intention-setting feature of Randonautica has recently caught on with teens on TikTok, who have turned it into a sort of new-age Ouija board by setting their “intention” to something scary and then inevitably finding something creepy. The most notable case is a pair of Seattle teens who claimed last month that Randonautica led them to human remains.

Motivations of anonymous posters trying to score internet points and teens trying to freak each other out aside, it’s hard not to fall down the rabbit hole that Randonautica clearly wants you to stumble into.

Of course, there’s a far simpler and much more believable explanation for all the coincidences of Randonautica: It’s all in your head.

Humans are extremely good at identifying patterns, explains Adam Bear, a cognitive psychologist at Havard’s Moral Psychology Research Lab. Like horoscopes or clouds in the sky, we’ve evolved to see something in everything. In 2008, science writer Michael Shermer coined the term “patternicity” for this cognitive quirk.

“Our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature,” Shermer writes. “The problem is that we are very poor at estimating such probabilities, so the cost of believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind is relatively low compared with the opposite. Thus, there would have been a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real.”

“I do sympathize with and am in favor of, you know, injecting a little randomness into our lives in the sense that it might lead you somewhere where you might not otherwise go,” says Carroll. “But there’s no reason to be mystical about it. It’s just the laws of physics that work.”

Randonauting, in and of itself, can be a fun, worthwhile experience. There’s something to be said for just going to a random spot and seeing what you find. But the world isn’t bending to your mind. It’s the other way around.

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him.

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