Roaming Autodidacts and the Neo-Reactionaries #OER17

“[The] literature [on open education] was preoccupied with what I call “roaming autodidacts”. A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women”

(McMillan Cottom, Tressie. 2015. “Intersectionality and Critical Engagement With The Internet” in The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online eds. Safiya U. Noble and Bredesha Tynes. Peter Lang Publishing. Accessed online)

The earliest reference to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s game changing coinage of “roaming autodidact” is from her presentation at MIT in July 2014. It is such a perfect description of the idealised online learner – effortlessly grazing learning from MOOCs, Wikipedia and sundry open courseware whilst remaining resolutely white, male, western and comfortably off – that it feels somehow timeless.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Catherine Cronin, Audrey Watters and others have taken the concept as a jumping-off point to understand the worlds of those left behind by online learning, and have begun to tackle the huge ingrained assumptions that colour learning design, resource sharing and platform development – slowly unpicking the lazy thinking that prevents learning online being available to all, and rooting perspectives on learning inside the lived reality of learners, wherever we may meet them.

This is hugely important work. But what happened to all the roaming autodidacts?

Well… They became Nazis.

Or some of them did.

Mencius Moldbug is a roaming autodidact. He’d be the first to admit how much he has drawn on the resources shared by Project Gutenburg, Wikipedia and various OpenCourseWare efforts to create the reactionary neo-feudal monarchical restorationist system of thought described in “Unqualified Reservations” (a body of work supposedly feted by the likes of Steve Bannon and Peter Theil).

He’s undeniably well read. Late last year I paddled through some of the surface waters of his world (and of parallel realms such as Nick Land’s “Dark Enlightenment”) as a painful and possibly misguided attempt to understand precisely what was going on in 2016. I can’t claim to be familiar with the majority of sources he cites (I don’t think anyone could), but the same could be said for any serious book in the social sciences.

When people write PhDs (and I take a moment to honour the sheer work each of you who have done this put in) they draw together bodies of knowledge that have never before been drawn together. They synthesise it, make links and draw conclusions. Examiners (and again, I take a moment…) cannot be expected to be on top of this entire corpus. But what they are incredibly on top of is the safe ways that all of this information (data) can be drawn together and built on. Methods. Statistical, historical, socio-cultural, scientific – these are our tools of discernment. And these are the things that a PhD Viva is designed to allow you to defend.

A roaming autodidact has little use for methods. He (and yes, it is always a “he”) does not need methods to draw conclusions. He needs sources. A researcher knows she can find a source to validate just about any crazy idea, a roaming autodidact knows he can find a source to validate his crazy idea– but he does not know that this is universally true.

Moldbug practices “slow history”, explaining it thus:

“The student of slow history, who has no faith at all in consensus wisdom, official truth, and “everybody knows” chestnuts, is willing to rest enormous judgments on a single, indisputable, authentic primary source”


And again:

“The nice thing about reading a primary source from 1942 is that you are assured of its “period” credentials, unless of course someone has hacked Time’s archive. The author cannot possibly know anything about 1943. If you find a text from 1942 that describes the H-bomb, you know that the H-bomb was known in 1942. One such text is entirely sufficient.”


This may be “slow”, but it is not “history” in any academic sense. It is cherry-picking. It is appeal to anecdote. Just because this one guy said something in 1942 doesn’t make it any more reliable than this one guy at the bar last Saturday. It’s a single point of information. A datum, if you like.

To start drawing anything reliable at all from it we need a few more sources. And not just the next ones we find, we need a strategy to find a balanced, representative sample of these. And then we can start doing some work around context, purpose, reliability.

But of course, that’s just academic consensus. What do academics know? Moldbug has a problem with consensus (and, indeed, academia) – drawing on a lay perspective of consensus being innately suspicious, and an absence of substantial counter-evidence being doubly so.

As he puts it in relation to Anthropogenic Global Warming:

“The unusual trustworthiness of science, despite the fact that scientists are humans and humans are not generally trustworthy, exists when (a) hypotheses are falsifiable, and (b) the professional institutions within which scientists operate promote, broadcast, and reward any falsification. We can trust a consensus of scientists on a problem for which (a) and (b) are true, because we are basing our trust on the fact that, if the hypothesis is false, a large number of very smart people has tried and failed to discover its error. This is not, of course, impossible. But it is at least unlikely.”


But there speaks a guy who doesn’t hang out with academics much. The ones I know love controversy. They love being the voice speaking out against the tide. It’s a great way to get keynote gigs and well-cited papers. Disagreement is the lifeblood of the only academia I recognise. Hell – I’ve never seen a bunch of academics agree on which pub to go to, on the correct citation method for journal articles… If you want to make absolutely sure of academic argument, try attempting to enforce consensus from above (I used to work for a funding council…).

Open education, and open culture, has put a great deal of information into the public arena. Much of it is primary in nature – undigested, undifferentiated. The terms of common open licences do not allow us to care how it is used after release – and it would be perhaps unfair to castigate Project Gutenberg or MITOCW for the genesis of the alt-right and the birth of Trumpism.

Mike Caulfield is doing as much as anyone to work out what we need to do afterwards.

“My solution to the post-truth crisis is to develop a culture of collaborative explanation and exploration via development and use of new and different tools.

My belief is that humans have a couple modes of working with truth. Some are adversarial and propagative, and some are exploratory and collaborative. The adversarial mode is killing us.”

(Mike Caulfield)

Collaborative explanation is academia at its best. It is the guts of the scientific method – where a perfectly executed rebuttal is a cause for joy as truth is further revealed. It is how humans really get stuff done, whereas the adversarial mode (election campaigns are the best example that comes to mind) is how we stop things being done. It is a mode of enquiry that it is important we inculcate the next generation of roaming autodidacts in before they become Nazis. Or some of them do.

Adversarial explanation is academia at its worst. It’s the “I know something you don’t” mode of debate – praising esoterica, and using sources as weapons. It’s the mode of debate that leads to conspiracies and polarisation – “hidden secrets” and arcana. It can make for wonderful storytelling, mesmeric speaking and writing. But fundamentally it is a model of smartness that celebrates breadth and denigrates synthesis. And it is classic Moldbug. He throws sources and connections at you so fast unpicking it and critiquing it all becomes an exercise in translation – with text like that you can only read and react. His obscurantism is a false signifier, adding the illusion of credibility to his painful and regressive positions on race, crime and governance.

Caulfield’s recent work has been focused on the development of online tools to foster what he prefers to term “choral explanation” – multiple voices synthesising into consensus.

But the will is as important as the tool. And teaching roaming autodidacts the will to collaborate, corroborate and develop as a natural everyday response to a primary source is the next great task of the open movement.

21 thoughts on “Roaming Autodidacts and the Neo-Reactionaries #OER17”


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