The app makers are not so sure, citing a strange outfit called the Global Consciousness Project (GCP). The GCP’s research grew out of a controversial and now-defunct Princeton University laboratory devoted to the study of psychic phenomena, which one physicist described as “an embarrassment to science”.
The GCP continuously monitors the output of random number generators, looking for moments when weird results correlate with large emotional events. At one point it claimed to have found a “strong” anomaly that exactly coincided with the fall of the Twin Towers, but other scientists have criticised its methodology.
Randonautica claims to be generating a similar dataset. “If the user thinks about some subject, the quantum [random] data should deviate so that the user can find this subject,” it says on its website. “The thought process itself should influence the generation process, therefore it is not necessary to enter an intention into the app.”
Those claims closely mirror the “law of attraction” made famous by Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help book The Secret, which argues that human thoughts and feelings can directly change the material world. Randonautica notes that an “overly sceptical attitude” can spoil the process, and recommends meditation to focus intention.
Finding patterns in noise
“I think it’s totally wrong,” says Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist and randomness expert who once debated the new age mystic Deepak Chopra and will soon publish a new memoir about working with Stephen Hawking.
“No, you cannot influence quantum processes with your mind, and there is no room for that in the theory of physics, which works extremely well and is the reason you have the phone you’re talking on, the computer you’re typing on, and all the advantages of the modern world.”
Instead, he says, the magic of randonauting comes from humans’ innate drive to find patterns in the “noise” of nature. “You look at the clouds and see faces, or people see Jesus in their peanut butter sandwich, because our minds are designed to understand the world by taking some shortcuts.”
These patterns are also hard to escape. In one lecture, Mlodinow played a Grateful Dead song in reverse and found that the audience interpreted it as “total gibberish”. Yet once he showed them fake lyrics that sounded similar to the noise, it became difficult for them to hear the music any other way.
Randonautica, then, is well-pitched to ensnare our brains, with “intentions” that prime them to find patterns just as Mlodinow’s backwards lyrics do. A cynic might say it is the perfect viral marketing strategy: tempt your users into entertaining fantasies that they will eagerly share with their friends.
The company openly admits that its dataset suffers from confirmation bias, since the stories that generate trip reports are usually the most exciting ones. Few randonauts would make an hour-long video in which absolutely nothing happens, or give detailed feedback on a nondescript street corner.
The ‘alternate reality game’
It is even possible that Randonautica itself is a complicated work of performance art or a sprawling “alternate reality game”, drawing its users slowly towards some narrative yet to emerge.
Despite all the dubious science, Hawkins believes randonauting is still valuable. Although he has little truck with the app’s “science fiction” trappings, his years of living randomly have taught him that some form of intention-setting is “essential” to truly benefiting from the process.
“It’s very easy to get to a random place and then feel like ‘what should I do now?'” he says.”We’re so used to getting to a destination and having an activity ready for us. With a random place there is no context, no reason why you’re there. You have to find a context.”
In fact, Hawkins sees in Randonautica a revival of ancient divination practices such as Roman entrail-reading and the Chinese I Ching. “Every culture has some way of casting lots or making decisions by drawing inspiration from chaotic or random effects… it allows you to imagine new frameworks for how things are put together.”
Young people may be particularly open to anything that offers some form of control, order and understanding of the world. Many randonauts set intentions involving their career or future. Witchcraft, tarot cards and horoscopes are popular on TikTok for similar reasons.
“Teenagers have a natural curiosity about the world around them, a propensity to explore, and to find patterns and symbols in the world around them,” says Woita. Perhaps, then, randonauting does have special powers – albeit probably not the ones it claims. “It has an affect on your attention, on the things that you notice when you go out,” says Hawkins. “In that sense intention does have an affect on your experience of the world. You don’t have to believe in the metaphysics to find that out.”
Even then, disappointment is possible. One pair of US teens focus on the heartthrob actor Timothée Chalamet. The app takes them to a house on a country road, which they then attempt, without much success, to connect to the actor and his films.
“It’s a really nice house? He may live there?” one of them says. “We don’t know. Randonauting seems fake.”
But maybe they were being too sceptical.