The Signal in the Noise
In June 2020, a group of teenagers wandering a Seattle beach discovered a suitcase. It contained human remains, which were later identified by police as 35-year-old Jessica Lewis and 27-year-old Austin Wenner, who had both been murdered. The teens had been led to the suitcase by an app called Randonautica, which is said to offer its users, known as “Randonauts,” new and unusual experiences by directing them to mysteriously generated coordinates on a map.
The app has gained a sinister reputation online, with sites like TikTok and YouTube inundated with videos of Randonauts documenting eerie discoveries. In one, a girl breaks down as she talks of encountering a gunshot victim. In another, a girl discovers creepy kids’ drawings in a forest, only to be told by commenters that ghostly children’s faces can be seen watching her from among the undergrowth.
Many, including the app’s creator Joshua Lengfelder, have claimed that Randonautica can tap into hidden forces of the mind, causing one’s thoughts to physically manifest in the real world. They are somewhat correct, but not in the way they claim, and the actual answer offers far more compelling insights into human nature about how we manufacture meaning.
Randonautica was launched in February 2020, just as the pandemic was going global, and it quickly became a popular way for young people to escape the humdrum of lockdown. The app generates map coordinates using a quantum random number generator. Unlike traditional random number generators, which decide values based on such things as the time, quantum random number generators are truly random.
According to Lengfelder’s philosophy behind the app, the quantum nature of the generated coordinates makes them susceptible to influence by a quantum phenomenon known as the “observer effect,” which apparently allows the coordinates to be manipulated by mere thought. As such, Randonauts are instructed to fixate on an idea, called an “intention,” before obtaining their coordinates and embarking on their adventure, as the intention can apparently skew anything from the coordinates generated to what is found at the coordinates.
The claim of intention influencing outcomes through quantum weirdness is based on a popular but false understanding. The observer effect describes how, in some interpretations of quantum physics, the act of observing a phenomenon can affect it. In Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, the cat in the box is both dead and alive until you open the box and observe the cat, at which point it becomes either dead or alive. In other words, observation actualizes the cat’s fate. The word “observation” here refers to measurement, but the popular misunderstanding is that it refers to human perception, and so new age spiritualists like Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne have wrongly concluded that merely focusing on something can affect its outcome.
However, although quantum effects are not involved, intention can influence what is found at a set of coordinates. The mind is a pattern-recognition machine, and it tends to see patterns overeagerly, because in our evolutionary history it was safer to see a pattern where there was none than to not see a pattern where there was one. As such it will often dream up connections between unconnected things, and, if one is watchful for a certain pattern, they’re more likely to imagine one. This psychological quirk, known as apophenia, explains why Randonauts seem to chance upon discoveries that match their intentions.
Screenshot from a Huffington Post article
And yet, if you search for Randonautica videos online, you’ll be deluged with clips showing discoveries too extraordinary to be attributable to mere delusion, from crop circles to corpses. The preponderance of such discoveries is easily explained. Firstly, and most obviously, people love to make stuff up. A shocking discovery is awfully easy to stage, and the motivation to fake such things is strong at a time when everyone wants to be noticed.
Secondly, if you have thousands of people visiting random coordinates every day, then sooner or later one of them will, by sheer probability, stumble upon something significant. This effect is amplified by another phenomenon, “the bias against null results.” Randonauts will naturally tend to only post videos of trips in which they discovered something interesting, while deleting those in which they didn’t. This heavily skews the videos that are uploaded in favor of those with surprising discoveries, giving the impression that such discoveries are more common than they really are.
The app has spawned a new genre of creepypasta, or online urban legend, in which the narrator follows the coordinates out of the mundane and into the otherworldly. And communities like the Randonauts subreddit have formed around such stories, developing their own lexicon of myths and legends. Randonauting has even become a popular Halloween activity, functioning like a higher stakes trick-or-treating.
The Randonautica app has spawned a new genre of creepypasta, or online urban legend, in which the narrator follows the coordinates out of the mundane and into the otherworldly.
The app is not just used for scares, however. Many use it to find meaning. On social media, the app has drawn the attention of spiritualists, numerologists, and other believers in the supernatural, who have integrated it into their belief systems. A subculture of Tiktok witches, called “WitchTok,” appears to wholeheartedly believe in Randonautica’s claimed quantum superpowers, and often record themselves using it in divination rituals as a kind of digital dowsing.
What this shows is that humans use random data to create their own mythologies, and then use the mythologies to create their own subcultures and communities. By using stories to form connections between unrelated data, we also form connections with strangers. As such, there may be some social utility in being able to see patterns where none exist.
While communities formed around myths can offer the same sense of meaning and belonging as any community, they can have a dark side, because in the end they multiply delusion, sometimes with real-world consequences.
In July 2020, a man named Reve Kalell uploaded a video to his TikTok channel. In the video he claims he’s been trying to use Randonautica to “Glitch out the Matrix,” and has been led to a cabinet store in LA coincidentally called “Matrix Cab Parts.” Wondering what the app is trying to tell him, he begins looking around the vicinity, and notices a car park for “US Arcades” but no sign of any building with that name. Upon googling “US Arcades” he finds that it’s located at the exact same spot as Matrix, but rather than cab parts it produces “adult” goods. Shortly after, a truck pulls up seemingly carrying children’s toys.
In subsequent videos in the series, entitled “Detective Randonaut,” Kalell documents his efforts to understand what is transpiring behind the doors of Matrix Cab Parts/US Arcades. In his search he encounters a few supposedly eerie anomalies: for instance, some of the cabinets sold by Matrix appear to have human names, and a business located nearby is listed on Google as “Sales Multi Child.” Innocent businesses name their wares after people all the time (child traffickers are rarely stupid enough to do the same). Further, business listings on Google are frequently misnamed. But Kalell seems certain he’s found evidence of a child trafficking ring, a sentiment echoed by his viewers, who fill his comment sections with expressions of horror, and reassurances that he’s doing God’s work. Fueled by the encouragement of his audience, and by his belief that Randonautica led him to the cabinet store for a reason, Kalell continues his “investigation” hell-bent on uncovering a conspiracy.
As the conspiracy theory grew online it also grew geographically, implicating not just Matrix Cab Parts but also the buildings around it, including a hotel, a hospice, and an airport, all of them pulled into the picture by the flimsiest of connections. In the most recent video in the series, posted two weeks ago, Kalell takes his conspiracy theory further still, implicating Jeffrey Epstein due to his use of the airport. As Kalell explains in the video, “I’ve learned not to question my intuition.”
This has proven a big mistake, as many of Kalell’s fans, infected with his delusions, have taken matters into their own hands, flooding the accused businesses with emails and phone calls harassing and threatening them. One need only recall the Planet Ping Pong shooting to see how this could escalate.
The fact that people like Kalell and his followers became reliant on a random-number generator to give their lives purpose could be read as an indictment of the aimlessness of modern life, but such reliance is an anomaly rather than a trend. The vast majority of people who use the app do so casually, to bond with friends, create memorable stories, or simply escape the routine of a life dictated solely by decisions, and it would be a mistake to judge Randonautica purely by those extremes. Kalell’s case serves only as a warning of what can happen when people become so eager to find new connections that they sever their connection with reality.
So where, in the end, does Randonautica lead us? If we’re willing to look at it the right way, it leads us to ourselves, to a better understanding of our nature. This app created entire subcultures, with their own myths and legends and conspiracy theories, and it did it all with nothing but random numbers, because ultimately that’s all we need. It is not through facts but through the stories we tell ourselves that we connect life’s debris, bring order to chaos, and make sense of a senseless world.
The app created entire subcultures, with their own myths and legends and conspiracy theories, and it did it all with nothing but random numbers, because ultimately that’s all we need.
Life, ultimately, is mostly random. But if you search the chaos for wonder, you’ll find it. And if you choose to search for monsters, you’ll discover they are hiding not in your closet or under your bed, but everywhere you look.