An ode to the ‘randomize’ button

Technology

Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky button has nothing to do with luck. It actually shows you the first search result, something it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. I always thought that if I hit IFL on, say, ‘dogs’, I’d get a dog related webpage plucked randomly from the entire internet. Pretty stupid. But it’s a compelling idea, right?

Random is something of a dirty word nowadays. For people who came of age in the late noughties it sparks ‘Nam flashbacks of pale teens, their hair stiff with neon dye, blurting out nouns like waffle and narwal to demonstrate their irreverent wit. Put those children aside for a moment. Consider instead the crowning jewel of a character creation screen: the randomize button.

I love the word ‘randomize’. It sounds like something Jean-Luc Picard would bark in a moment of stress. So high-tec, so powerful. Slam down the randomizer to see something never before witnessed by human eyes. It’s an inherently fun concept, and so video-gamey, too. Oli Welsh waxed lyrical on the power of randomization in his Champions Online preview, calling the game an ‘inexhaustible factory for charismatic super-beings’. Satisfying as it may be to tweak your character’s eyebrow density just-so, there’s an equal thrill in being thrown a random jumble of parts and powers and told, in the style of Project Runway, ‘Make it work!’

Most of us have a randomize button that’s close to our heart. Mine is in The Sims 3. I spent long childhood summers hovering over my sister’s shoulder, relishing that crisp dice roll sound effect as she made and unmade smooth-skinned suburban avatars, each with a random personality to match their random face. Couch potato. Mean spirited. Hates the outdoors. We’d call this awful person ‘Willow’ and drown her in a swimming pool.

Computers can’t be truly random all by themselves. They need something external – like that company in San Francisco that generates encrypted code by monitoring a wall of lava lamps. I doubt there’s a camera somewhere observing the decay of an atom to decide whether or not to give my sim a bow tie, but still, there’s a peculiar delight in having something unique to yourself. Stumble onto a rambling mountain range in Minecraft and revel in the knowledge that it exists even though it doesn’t have to, just by happy mathematical accident. This is not design. This is serendipity.

Everything we see online is cultivated, mostly by an algorithm. These bots know how to hold your attention, but have no conception of hard-to-measure factors like fulfillment and novelty. They’ll choose an hour of repetitive garbage over ten minutes of sublime genius. What I want is the option to randomize. To click a button that shoots a signal to a complex rig in southern Mexico, captures the wing-flutterings of a monarch butterfly, transmutes that movement into code, uses that code to select a certain web address, and shoots that address back to me.

The resulting content might be weird or boring. There’s a strong chance it’ll be obscene. But what the hell! I’m feeling lucky.