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A quantum-computing app led me on an adventure in my own town

“Randonauting” is a trendy, spooky, surprisingly poignant way to break out of quarantine.

By Glenn McDonald

On a pleasant autumn Saturday, I downloaded an app called Randonautica, set my location, and concentrated solemnly on the goal I had entered into my settings: “freedom.” After performing about 20 seconds of quantum computation, Randonautica suggested a destination that promised to break me out of my homebound pandemic isolation: a residential cul-de-sac on the edge of my sleepy little college town.

Randonautica then piped the coordinates directly to my phone’s default mapping app. Within seconds I was in our family minivan and heading out for my rendezvous with destiny.

As a sales pitch, it’s pretty good: Harness the power of quantum computing to bring adventure and meaning to your life! That’s the experience hawked by Randonautica, the app-slash-trend that has enjoyed success amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  Randonauting promises a weird and novel method to explore your neighborhood by way of that venerable American tradition: quasi-scientific mystical mumbo-jumbo.

The app asks you to set an intention — love, peace, and creativity are three of the suggested focus terms — then concentrate. As you’re ruminating, the app connects with a quantum supercomputer in Australia, which generates random coordinates within a specified range of your location. The idea is that your focused intention somehow influences the random number generation — on the quantum level, mind you — and delivers a destination of techno-magical significance. Then you journey to the coordinates, by walking, biking, or driving, and see what happens.

Randonauting has its origins in fringe science groups online, those forums and Reddit pages where spooky science is discussed. Details are often fuzzy, but the topic tends to generate lots of interesting word-sounds about quantum theory, synchronicity, attractors, and anomalies. The Randonautica app itself, as a commercial concern that includes a micropayment system, is squarely in the huckster tradition of paranormal, science-adjacent monetization schemes, from spiritualism to psychic phone lines. Still, for the student of human behavior, the practice of randonauting has fascinating intersections with technology, psychology, and viral online culture.

Because I had opened my mind to look for significance in my environment, I was suddenly surrounded by significant things.

Social media sent randonauting into supernova phase this past summer, with users sharing YouTube and TikTok videos of their odd and sometimes scary experiences, usually powered by the user-friendly app. Inevitably, a wave of fake videos followed, along with pearl-clutching columns about safety and privacy and won’t someone think of the children?

But despite such controversies, randonauting’s timing as a socially distanced, get-out-and-explore trend is perfect. Like everyone else, I’ve been in virtual quarantine for months. I’m often lonely and always stressed. Maybe a destination chosen by quantum hucksterism can help. Who knows?

I followed the turn-by-turn directions from the computer lady in my phone (she has an Australian accent — this seems significant) until I arrived at my mystical locus. It was rather underwhelming: A slightly crooked clapboard house, with a riot of kids’ toys and random objects scattered on the lawn amid some half-completed Christmas decorations. Two life-size plastic Santa Claus statues smiled out from the porch. Who puts out two Santa Clauses? Won’t that raise difficult questions from the kids? I sat there in the minivan, contemplating Santa Clauses and “freedom” and feeling very conspicuous.

But then an interesting thing happened. I don’t know much about quantum valences, but I do subscribe to the idea of emotional valences. It’s been my experience that mood absolutely alters perception. If I’m feeling good, I notice certain things. If I’m feeling low, I notice a whole other set of things. My perceptions define my reality in the moment.

And that’s the intriguing experience I had using Randonautica. Because I had opened my mind to look for significance in my environment, I was suddenly surrounded by significant things. It was an interesting twist on the confirmation-bias dynamic that powers other seemingly magical occurrences. I liked it! I rolled with it.

Directly across the street from where I parked, near the two-Santa house, stands a repurposed high school called the Lincoln Center. In the bad old days of North Carolina’s segregated history, the building was the designated high school for Black students. It’s now a community center, gymnasium, and administration hub. My son played rec league basketball there as a middle-schooler. Some of my best memories are floating in its dusty bleachers.

My mind wandered and I thought about how, before the Black Lives Matter movement, I didn’t see much significance in the Lincoln Center. Now, I found myself thinking about my community, my place in it, the pitiless march of time, the slow inching of progress.

A concerned-looking mom appeared in a window of the dual-Santa house. I sensed that it was time to move on. On the drive back, I passed through other places from my 20-odd years in Chapel Hill. I skirted the campus of the University of North Carolina, where I worked for awhile. I passed the movie theater that my wife and I used to frequent, before kids, when we were happy cinephiles. It’s closed now, shuttered by the state COVID-19 protocols. I spotted the coffee shop where I spent my first nervous days as a self-employed writer and the community park where my daughter fell from a tree and bounced back like a Weeble.

I realized that my randonauting had indeed prompted a sort of magical transformation, although it had nothing to do with quantum number generators or P.T. Barnum-style money-making. In the spirit of consumer advocacy, I feel obligated to report that you really don’t need the app and the Australian supercomputer. You can get the same experience with a fold-out map and a dart.

But the app had triggered a kind of intent. I was in the moment — in my neighborhood, in my life — looking for significance. Once we pay attention, even for just a little while, everything is significant. Every neighborhood is magic.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.


Illustration by Dom McKenzie


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