Mia Cole, a 15 year-old YouTuber, set off alone into the woods. Guided only by her smartphone and a mysterious smartphone app giving her directions, she came upon an abandoned hunters outlook.
On a wooden fence by the hut, she saw something disturbing. "There’s a fence, a wooden fence," she says. "And right on the back of it it just said ‘Mia’."
The encounter is just one of many that Generation Z and TikTok teenagers have been broadcasting as part of a new craze driven by the app Randonautica.
The app is designed to encourage users to explore their local area by giving the a random set of coordinates. Users set a radius of how far they are willing travel and are encouraged to set an 'intention'. This could be a phrase or word that will allegedly take the user to a place with deeper meaning.
Rise of the randonauts
Since its launch in February, Randonautica has become a stealthy viral sensation. Its followers – who call themselves "randonauts", and are often of Generation Z – tell stories of being led to new and unexplored places, guided towards inexplicable coincidences that give them clues about their future or even being exposed to paranormal activity.
The app itself is a seductive mixture of fringe science, mysticism and performance art. Drawing data from a "quantum random number generator" at the Australia National University, it assigns users a random set of coordinates to visit and invites them to submit a "trip report" about their experience.
Started at a telephone pole with the letters “JC”, so we set the intent for Jesus Christ. The location was a church! Made it across a highway after going on a “Stone rd”. On the side of the road I saw a metallic disk. Powerful alchemy @TheRandonauts! pic.twitter.com/5fdVpqOSVE
— God Disk (@thegoddisk) May 31, 2020
Its US-based creators say they are inspired by chaos theory and the “dérive” strategy of 20th-century French socialist and artist Guy Debord, who advocated moving in an unplanned, semi-random way through urban space in order to escape or disrupt its architects' intentions.
The app's goal: to help app users "break from their mundane day-to-day and take a journey of randomness into the world around them".
"Technology has optimised away a lot of the serendipity that exists in our lives," says Max Hawkins, a former Google engineer who helped kickstart the internet's fascination with the random life when he spent two years living wherever and doing whatever his self-built randomiser apps told him to.
"It's like living inside a recommendation algorithm, which is showing you the right thing, but you miss out on all the other possibilities. I see this as a way of reclaiming that... I've been excited to see the huge community that was gathering around it."
The weird part, however, comes from the "intention setting". Before generating their target, randonauts are asked to take a moment to concentrate on what they want from it.
The app's makers claim that this process can actually influence the number generator, somehow meddling with the fluctuations of energy in a laboratory on the other side of the world.
“The experiment we are interested in is to test the effects of mind-matter interaction on sets of quantum random numbers,” says Joshua Lengfelder, Randonautica's co-founder.
We are at an interesting point in time where the general public is still in disbelief at the prospect of mind-matter interaction. We are witness to a world changing paradigm shift, where the extraordinary will become ordinary, and mind influencing matter becomes a common belief.
— Randonauts (@TheRandonauts) June 12, 2020
“We are hopeful that there will be significant breakthroughs in mind-matter technology within the randonaut community but at this point, we consider it a global phenomenon.”
It is partly this whiff of the occult that has propelled Randonautica to more than 8m downloads. Randonauting already existed before Randonautica, which was built to streamline the process of receiving coordinates.
Teenagers around the world have spent months cooped up indoors, so you can see why filming a spooky adventure video in the woods might be a tempting prospect.
But the app's biggest boost came in June from TikTok and then YouTube stars posting videos of their wild expeditions.
'It seemed outlandish'
“I’m a very sceptical person, it seemed outlandish,” said Mia Cole about her experience of seeing her name carved in the woods earlier this month.
"Instantly, everything just hit me – what I was doing, what situation I just put myself in. And I started running as fast as I could all the way home.” She insists that the sign, and her fear, were both real.
The Telegraph’s experiment, in a remote part of California, was less alarming. After setting an intention to find "adventure", the first two coordinates were in the middle of a nearby lake (users can pay $3 to avoid such inconvenient aquatic suggestions).
The third attempt took us to a back road behind an organic orchard and an intriguing pile of what appeared to be abandoned tractor exhausts. It was a pretty spot, and would probably count as an adventure for those of us who do not dream of emulating Scott of the Antarctic.
Randonautica's terms ban anyone under 18, but a quick scan of high-profile videos reveals most are teenagers. Unsurprisingly, many of them (including Cole) disobey the app's advice to keep a positive mindset and set an intention to find "evil" or "murder".
Cue tentative expeditions down forest trails in inappropriate footwear, set to horror movie music, as groups are spooked by way markers, abandoned buildings and, in one case, a frog camouflaged on tree bark.
The most unsettling trips have led people to dead bodies, with three teenagers in Seattle appearing to have found real human remains in a suitcase on a beach. But other users have posted obviously staged “discoveries”, including live animals and a woman in a box.
"As a general principle, nature produces random results unless acted on by consciousness or mind. Then a reduction of entropy occurs (life or its associated mind is anti-entropic) and patterns will appear.” - Scott A. Wilber
— Randonauts (@TheRandonauts) June 12, 2020
Many videos show people screaming and running away from unseen figures, the camera conveniently pointed at the ground. One imagines there are a few perplexed hikers out there wondering what they did to provoke such excitement.
The app's makers are sanguine about its darker side. "When you’re sending millions of people to random locations and searching the hidden corners of reality, you're bound to find some pretty shocking stuff," says Joshua Lengfelder. "It’s not the best press, but I’m not really that upset about it, because it’s kind of cool."
The 'science' behind the app
Looking closely at the supposed science behind Randonautica is an adventure in itself. The quantum random number generator is real enough, deriving its numbers from the "noise" produced by the natural oscillation of particles and energies within a vacuum.
"Vacuum fluctuations are the purest source of randomness," Prof Ping Koy Lam, a quantum computing expert who maintains the apparatus, tells the Telegraph. But he also says: "To our knowledge, there is no known and accepted theory that links this to our mind, will, or consciousness."
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 Lengfelder. 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.