The App of the Summer Is Just a Random-Number Generator

It took me a week to find a plastic water bottle full of what could only be pee.
That was after the abandoned house taped off with gas leak warnings, but before I spun around on an unfamiliar block deep in Brooklyn to see three dalmatians wiggling toward me. When I saw the bottle lying in the middle of the sidewalk, it felt like a rite of passage.
This is my summer activity: walking around, or “randonauting” in internet parlance. Water bottles full of pee are known as “ piss bottles ” in the randonaut community, an inside joke that has inspired T-shirts . It’s pretty simple, as jokes go: If you spend enough time exploring the world at random, you will stumble upon a bottle full of pee.
Randonauting is also simple. You can do it using the free app Randonautica, which asks you for your location, prompts you to select one of a handful of different “entropy” generators—which one you choose should not really matter—and then asks you to focus your mind on your “intent.” Then it spits out a set of coordinates that could , allegedly, be influenced by your mind interacting with the machine, or not, and you can choose to go there, or not, and submit a report of what you find, or not. (You can generate 10 sets of coordinates a day for free and pay to generate more.) The app’s logo, fittingly, is an owl, because owls see in the dark; randonauts see what other people don’t. In particular, they see what they otherwise wouldn’t.
Randonautica launched in February and has mixed reviews on the App Store, because it often crashes. Additionally, people who live near bodies of water tend to get coordinates that fall underwater, which can be frustrating. (You have to pay for the privilege of excluding them.) It was created by Joshua Lengfelder, a Texan and former circus performer who told me that the app once took him to an abandoned drum in the middle of the woods, where he nearly stepped on a “bright-red rattlesnake.” “I didn’t even know there were red rattlesnakes in Texas,” he added, understandably, because there typically are not. ( Red rattlesnakes are also usually a rust color, or just brown.)
[ Read: The pandemic secrets people are keeping from Instagram ]
According to the app’s developers, Randonautica has been downloaded 8 million times—6 million since the beginning of April. “That’s really when we started blowing up,” Lengfelder said. “People were trapped in their houses and it gave them a way to break out of their normal routine. It’s one of the few activities you can do while social distancing but still stay safe.”
The allure of Randonautica is bigger than “It allows me to be outdoors and kill time,” however. It is janky-looking, sure, and does not always load. And the science behind it—the idea that human thoughts can influence random-number generators—does not make a lot of sense. But it plays with concepts that people tend to love: that we can do something amazing whenever we...