A Quick Ride to the Random

The way humanity interacts with the random seems one of the more interesting aspects of life. I have long been fascinated by that, and sometimes like to play around with it a bit. When I heard of the app Randonautica, I was intrigued since using a random location generator to generate some destinations around East London that I could cycle to sounded fun. Anything for some exercise, while lockdown madness storms onwards, right?

Of course, Randonautica bills itself as something a bit more than a random location generator. There is a lot of pseudo-science tied up in it based around “mind-machine interaction” and that most pseudo-sciancable concept of all, quantum physics. If MMI is a thing, it pretty much certainly wouldn’t work in the way that this app seems to be suggesting, which borders on mind reading. The idea is to think of an ‘intention’ while using the app’s generating function, which will influence the quantum nature of random number generation and increase the probability of the generated point being relevant to your intention.

And … the Randonautica app does have a bit of a strange reputation and a thoroughly memified cult of odd occurrences among its users. Search for it and you will find all sorts of videos – people blundering into weird and horrible things in ways that almost verge on the supernatural. “Do not use Randonautica”, they warn, which is, of course, a pretty good way to get people to use Randonautica.

Well – I’ll play along. 🙂 I set as my intention something quite easy (for London) – Art. Guide me to some street art, Randonautica! And for an agreeable evening, I was navigated around the quiet residential streets of Dalston, Stoke Newington, Homerton and Hackney. Did it guide me to any art?

No.

I went past some art getting to these random points, and I had a lot of fun exploring small streets that I’d never looked at before – but the points themselves revealed absolutely nothing.

This is where the whole topic of the random truly starts to kick off. I didn’t expect any miracles because I am pretty familiar with what random means. I know very well that if I’d kept going, I would eventually have found what I was looking for. I also know that I would have had to keep going for an unknown but fairly substantial period of time for that to happen. And when it did, I’d go to that art and I’d think “ooh!” – and I’d remember it. I’d be thinking “Oh yes, Randonautica guided me to this cool mural”, which has a lot more weight in the mind than “Randonautica guided me to a random stretch of pavement. There was a postbox there.” Crucially, it is not only likely that with a sufficient number of tries Randonautica would send me to something marvellous, knowing that there is indeed street art in London, it is just about inevitable. It WILL happen. It will also inevitably send me to a dead body, or to my friend’s house, or to a dropped £20 note, or some such. The probability varies, but the probability is always there – and an improbability is a thing that can happen, not a thing that cannot. To find out how many tries it would take to find my street art, we’d need to know the percentage of ‘places’ with art compared to those without – which could theoretically be measured though I sure ain’t going to!

Confirmation bias. The tendency of the mind to generate patterns and to look for meanings. That’s what all this boils down to – indeed, it’s one of the more interesting examples of it that I have seen recently. And now, back home and in bed with a hot water bottle, I am musing. If I believed a word of the pseudoscience that surrounds Randonautica, what would I be thinking now? Would I be disappointed? Would I be thinking that I’d been impatient (actually true, given the laws of probability)? That it must be me that was wrong? That I’d not tried hard enough? Not thought my ‘intention’ loudly enough? That I’d not been ‘sensitive’ or ‘fervent’ enough? Even that I’d not ‘believed’ hard enough? Or alternately, would I be thinking I was playing the whole definition of art wrong? Would I be spinning philosophies in my head about what art is in an effort to justify what I’d just done? There were lots of Christmas lights, after all. Are they art? I see no reason why not!

There seems so much of the human condition tangled around this app because it is human nature to search for these patterns and meanings. The bottom line is not the arguments and mental twisting – it’s that a wish has crept in, almost unnoticed. We want this. On the trite level of my little trip – yeah, I wanted street art! I was looking for it. Street art had weight for me at that point, and that is powerful. But on more profound levels, far removed from this app, we find things like the urge to explain the unknowable, the need not to be alone, the fear of vacuums and endings, the phantasmagorical yearning for ‘meaning’ even as we are not quite sure what that ‘meaning’ means – everything. This wish lies at the heart of all things, and it is where this wish meets the random that it really becomes fascinating. The ways we can comfort ourselves or delude ourselves that what we want to exist does, that the world works how we want it to. And the role the random plays neither proves nor disproves any of this. Instead, it is the ultimate neutral. It provides a blank canvas – it provides us with miracles and coincidences and improbable events and horrible shocks and moments of freak-out, just as it will provide us with mundane streets, empty spaces and forlorn postboxes. It will always do this, as an ocean on which we navigate the small fragile ships that are our awareness.

The Randonautica app has a bit of a strange reputation … of course it has. I’d be more surprised if it didn’t. Because sooner or later, the improbable must happen. And because we tell stories.

Published in: on January 19, 2021 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Red Lights

There is an absolutely delicious irony about cycling at the moment. Read any online mention of cycling, no matter how peripheral, and I can tell you precisely what you will see there if comments are enabled. At least 50 people moaning about cyclists jumping red lights, another 50 moaning about cycling on pavements, and other creative criticisms like riding across crossings or the wrong way down roads. Presumably cyclists are a different species of human who all wear lycra and who’s mating rituals involve butting helmets and ringing bells? Whoever they are, it is ok to discriminate against them en mass even though racism is now frowned upon. It is very depressing.  Vehiclism is on the rise!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, London is actually becoming a pretty cycle friendly city in some ways – incorporating a lot of the latest designs for integrating bikes. I have even been involved with testing some of it with the TRL (a rainy day testing a new way to get bikes around bus stops – over and over again). And this is where the irony comes in. What do we see among these new designs? Cycle routes that hop on and off the pavement depending on safety. Traffic lights that let cyclists move at different times to cars (jumping lights, in effect, though safer obviously) or directing us across crossings with pedestrians instead. Even cycle routes that run contrary to the flow of cars or the wrong way down one way systems. Funnily enough, EXACTLY what everyone has been moaning about so much is now being incorporated officially as the latest cutting edge! The irony is beautiful!

I was always too . . . what is it? . . . law abiding to jump lights or ride around in weird places. But it was always clear that sometimes it was safer and I am very glad to see these new changes. The rules of the road are totally geared towards cars in foundation and don’t even fit bikes very well, so it’s no surprise that some take the system into their own hand. Bikes are still in an awkward place, not quite fitting in either on the road or off it – and we have to work with that as best we can, trying not to annoy people in the process but also trying not to get killed and trying to actually, well, move!  

Then again, some of any vehicle do drive like idiots as well. I could tell a few stories . . .

Published in: on April 9, 2014 at 4:39 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: