Given that modern life is so regularly baffling, it can sometimes feel like the only explanation for it all is that we’re collectively experiencing a Sims playthrough as directed by some sadistic cosmic being.
But what if there was a way to pull back the curtain — to gain another perspective on the high-definition simulation we call reality, and to unravel the physical mysteries of our world? A small but quickly growing online community believes that transforming randomly generated numbers into clusters of location data could help us tunnel out of reality. Their name for themselves: Randonauts.
It’s a sad truth that most of our lives are pretty boring, geographically speaking. Live in one place long enough and you will develop routines, walking the same streets and patronizing the same coffee shops and generally making it easy for a simulation, should one exist, to anticipate where you will be at any given time. Randonauts hope to use this tedium to their advantage, by introducing unpredictability. They argue that by devising methods that force us to diverge from our daily routines and instead send us to truly random locations we’d otherwise never think twice about, it just might be possible to cross over into somebody else’s reality. “New information and causality can pull you out of the filter-bubble and change your life,” writes The Fatum Project, the online team responsible for the technological and philosophical framework of the movement. Even if you don’t buy into the dense thicket of theoretical quantum physics underpinning the logic of it all, going on a Randonaut-style adventure can be a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
According to the The Fatum Project, there’s hard science behind all this. Building on research conducted by Princeton University’s Engineering Anomalies Research Lab into whether human thought could influence real-world events, they hope that Randonauts will be able to leave their “reality tunnels” and discover new contexts, appreciate daily life in fresh ways, or even venture into parallel iterations of their own realities.
We have no physical evidence our universe is not really run by a short [computer] program
Getting started is easy. Log into the Telegram messaging app and send the command “/getattractor” along with your location to @shangrila_bot (formerly, you could also message @Randonaut_bot). The bot will plot out thousands of nearby geolocation points using a quantum random number generator, and spit out the area with the highest concentration of points near you. Conversely, if computer-determined desolation is more your style, you can send the command “/getvoid” and through a similar process, the bot will send you a location where there are no randomly plotted points. On Reddit, Randonauts have reported finding things like an upside-down airplane; a llama, standing totally still; three identical black cats; a family of horses in a public park; and a bird that also refused to move. Under the auspices of “/getvoid,” users have reported finding derelict locales, creepy signage, and other marks of decay. Think of it as geocaching by way of Marianne Williamson.
Nick Hinton, a 24-year-old philosophy student at the University of Toledo, is an admin of /r/randonauts and manages the Fatum Project’s Instagram. He claimed that his first experience, in April this year, led him a thousand meters away, to a street light adjacent to a solitary glove. His phone glitched whenever he tried to take a picture, but when he walked away, his phone would work again. Though other early trips contained no similar moments of weirdness, Hinton believes the very act of randonauting had a stark effect. “This literally did change my perception,” he said.
It’s Hinton’s hope that even more people will have their worldviews similarly shifted through expeditions into the mundane powered by bots running from random-number generators. Next year, The Fatum Project will release a smartphone app called Randonautica, which will streamline the somewhat clunky process of the Randonaut experience. If the upcoming app succeeds in recruiting new Randonauts, he said, “I think reality is going to get a bit more weird.”
Perhaps no serious thinker has devoted as much mental real estate to the possibility that we’re living in a simulation than Jürgen Schmidhuber, the German computer scientist whose groundbreaking work in the field of neural networks has earned him the unofficial title, “Father of Modern AI.” Since 1997, Schmidhuber has been on a self-appointed mission to prove or disprove the possibility that we all live in a computer. Over 20 years later, he’s still on the fence. “We have no physical evidence our universe is not really run by a short [computer] program,” he told me.
When we spoke, Schmidhuber seemed unconvinced about the merits of randonauting. “I’m not surprised animals are behaving strangely if thousands of visitors are converging on that point,” he said in reference to strange results like the aforementioned horses in a Manchester park and the completely still bird and llama. However, he acknowledged that a controlled experiment could perhaps collect enough data to suggest whether there’s something inherently reality-bending about the practice. He posited that two groups could visit randomly decided locations — one by randonauting and the second with another method. “If the first 100 people have more exciting experiences than the other 100 people then you can start investigating whether there is something special about these particular ways of choosing locations,” he said.
But in his view, there’s every chance that everything that has ever occurred — including our interview — has been pre-determined and we’ve just been programmed to be surprised by it all. Per Schmidhuber’s thinking, if this were the case, then what we perceived as randomness was in fact a result of our puny human brains being unable to transcend the sense of perception we’ve been given.
For a better sense of what Schmidhuber’s getting at, consider the one-millionth digit of the number Pi. While that specific digit might appear to be random to us, there are already computer programs which use an algorithm to figure out the pattern at play and place the digit exactly. By this logic, there could very well be an equation we’re unaware of that explains all events that have happened or will happen. He explained, “As long as we don’t have proof that we can’t compress the history of events that describes our universe into a very short program, as scientists we are obliged to keep looking.”
After taking all of this in, I was eager to test out the Randonaut method for myself. One Wednesday afternoon in London, I logged into Telegram, switched my phone’s location on, messaged @Randonaut_bot and, after a brief wait, was returned an “attractor” a short train ride away. It had sent me coordinates north of the Sherlock Holmes Museum near Baker Street station. I had read the whole journey to and from the attractors was part of a larger universe-bending process, and so I kept my eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary.
This first foray ultimately led me to a street at a slight incline with nothing immediately visible on it. Hidden behind a brick wall was a small courtyard, and on top of my attractor point was a sculpture by Charles Hadcock who had dedicated it to “mathematics, geology, and engineering” — the three practices, I noted, that led me to the spot.
Sharing my discovery shortly afterwards on the Randonaut chat in Telegram, users explained that I had discovered a “data point.” A single point taken on its own, however, is like looking at just one Tarot card. When it comes to solving the mysteries of the universe, patterns and stories tend to emerge when taken together. My new Randonaut friends suggested that I seek out new data points in an attempt to “chain” my attractors.
My second trip led a friend and I to a decidedly less mystical subject: a green shopping bag containing a pair of Nikes, propped up on a Burger King table. We requested another attractor, and this time, the bot led us to a bottle of urine, resting on the ground in front of a shuttered office. I later learned finding piss-bottles is so common that discovering them has become a Randonaut meme. In the Telegram group, someone suggested to me that piss is “entangled with consciousness.” Indeed, there are few things that will make you feel as alive as you do when stumbling across a vessel full of someone else’s bodily fluids.
When you finally enter the quantum realm of possibilities but all you find are dirty bottles of piss 😪 pic.twitter.com/UiRzoCjOuA— The Fatum Project (@TheFatumProject) August 23, 2019
Heading to our next attractor, we walked from the Leicester Square Burger King towards Carlton Gardens. En route, we passed an outdoor sermon at the Anglican St James’s Church. The moment we sat down, the priest began talking about unknown journeys and divergent paths. Later, the bot pointed us towards a private equity business owned by a member of the Rothschild, the family who basically invented modern banking. A final attempt led us past this unmanned totem to Fidel Castro:
As I reflected upon my journey, I wondered if the universe was suggesting I protest the stranglehold of institutions such as corporations, capital, the church, and the state by dumping piss on all of them. I didn’t need quantum physics to tell me that, though.
After my first expedition, I decided it might help to have a regular Randonaut guide me on my simulation-smashing journey. I got in touch with Keb Frith, a 29-year-old content officer for a mental health charity in London, who had been randonauting for a few months and kindly agreed to accompany me on another trip.
We met outside the British Library and got moving. Our first attractor sent us past Pentonville Road east of King’s Cross, behind the back of Joseph Grimaldi park to the entrance of the Priory Green Estate and the Hugh Cubitt Community Center.
Around the corner was a community library offering free books. We rifled along the spines and discovered titles such as Why Eating BOGEYS Is Good for You, Italian Fever, and To the Ends of the Earth.
Nearby was a mural titled Walls on Walls, by the artist Laurie Nouchka. Keb told me that randonauting had frequently led him towards artwork: on his first trip in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, the attractor pointed towards this subterranean mermaid painting:
Despite living nearby, Keb had never walked past this aquatic fresco.
Back in London, Keb gestured towards a multicoloured bucket, directly where our attractor was located. Resting on top of it was this purple toy gecko.
The next point took us to an office by Hardwick Street. Keb, a braver person than I, suggested we go in, but I insisted that we stay outside. (A tip from Keb: if, like me, you’re worried about having to explain quantum consciousness to the cops while skulking around residential areas, just say you’re looking for your cat. If it’s inside an office, say you’re lost and ask whoever confronts you for directions.)
Finally, we thought we’d swing by the void that we had generated along with the first attractor.
It took us to the garbage in front of this Burger King — my second metaphysics-inspired visit to the fast-food franchise in two days. Keb remarked that it would be a shame if the community was rooted in guerilla marketing for a new kind of chicken sandwich. Later, I reached out to Burger King’s press department to ask if this was the case. Unbelievably, I did not receive a response.
Satisfied-ish, we called it a day. Keb told me these experiences tend to be what you make of them: sometimes there are weird coincidences and cool artwork. At other times, you might be directed to a supermarket, but hey, you might not have picked that lunch otherwise.
“It’s small things like that,” he said. “Learning to appreciate what you’ve got [is] the root of a lot of religious or spiritual quests. Sometimes, a painting of a mermaid at the bottom of your road is cool.” He added, “Even if it is completely random, maybe that shows that the world is slightly more exciting than it first looks, you know?”
Something that struck me about the entire experience was how closely it skirted aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy, in which therapists encourage you to challenge your thoughts, your perceptions, and your default modes of thinking. In my experience, most of all they will encourage a sense of presence.
Whatever you think of the validity of hacking reality or the nature of our possibly deterministic universe, my time randonauting pushed me to pay closer attention to my environment, to stop and notice things, like artwork, signs, symbols, nature, and objects, that I might have otherwise filtered out by default.
Do I understand the theories behind it all? Absolutely not. Do I think I’m challenging a demiurgical Great Programmer, jumping into alternate dimensions or tearing apart the space-time continuum? Probably also not. But my trips, nonetheless, felt imbued by a strangely comforting, esoteric mindfulness. And if only for that reason, I will be randonauting again.