Getting to Gnome Mode
Or, how do you revitalize a rundown world?
I learned about “goblin mode” a few weeks ago. I’m apparently getting bad at keeping up with these things because it went mainstream before I spotted it. Here’s NBC news defining it for the normies:
…Goblin mode, which refers to a person who is generally messy, likely unshowered and acting "feral" due to laziness or an aversion to going outside, has been used on sites like Tumblr and Urban Dictionary for years.
On my map, Goblin mode sounds like the degenerate bottom of what I tagged the domestic cozy trend in March 2019. My personal favorite illustration of goblin mode is the last stage of the xkcd laundry cycle:
This is both a funny cartoon and an almost mathematically precise illustration of the fundamental dynamic — things getting rundown and degenerating to the highest-entropy state. “Things” can be objects, processes, systems, environments — and allegedly alive beings. The cartoon includes all five ontological primitives.
I say allegedly alive because perhaps the primary characteristic of goblin mode is that your relationship with your physical self degenerates from an I-you to an I-it condition. Your sense of yourself as a person unravels, just as it does for many homeless people, except you still happen to be housed.
A potential antithesis to goblin mode is gnome mode, which @deepfates introduced me to on twitter, via this meme:
Upon further inquiry, @deepfates pointed me to another meme that clarifies the concept and dichotomy further (apparently, secretxsnake on Instagram is a key instigator of the gnome meme):
At first sight, “successful people” and “treasure-cave explorers” don’t obviously map to goblin mode. They seem to point to strivers out there in the world, striving for stuff, putting dents into the universe, boldly going where almost everybody has gone before, and so on. Not people who’ve retreated to some sort of degenerate domesticity.
That’s what I thought at first too, and the first meme in particular struck me as wrong. People who go exploring the depths of treasure caves aren’t people who lay around in their own filth, bingeing Netflix while dirty laundry piles up on the floor.
Or aren’t they?
Here’s the connection — goblin mode is normies processing burn out!
By this theory, normies are actually always treasure-grubbing goblins. It’s just that in burnout mode, they are unable to hide the fact behind sufficiently frequent public appearances featuring good grooming and a presentable demeanor.
If in “normal” times, you’re an uncritically careerist striver, seeking success and all the premium mediocre allegedly good things of life, and then the world barrels headlong into the Great Weirding, capped off by a pandemic that forces you indoors if you weren’t already there, what happens?
Well, the domesticity goes from cozy to claustrophobic and stressful, you descend into a meaning crisis, question everything, find no answers, and allow the life force to drain out of you, struggling to get through the burden of existence. You start running on fumes, and your only remaining joy in life is possibly watching your investment portfolio (if you have one) climb to the stratosphere (see? the connection to “treasure” and “success” is still there, just in extremely degenerate form, as a spectator sport watching investments).1
This is the start of the descent into goblin mode.
And then just as it seems like the pandemic might be over, with the vaccines containing the worst of it, what happens? You get hit by inflation that erodes whatever positive effects stimulus checks might have had in your life.2 Then there’s war in Ukraine, renewed supply chain shocks, high gas prices… and then finally an asset price crash in everything. And then layoffs start to happen, and wages start stagnating or declining for the employed once again.
The treasure is all gone!
And still no answers, so you degenerate further into a smelly pile indistinguishable from the pile of dirty laundry. You manage to maintain just enough grooming and composure to present as human on zoom calls.3 You hope your boss doesn’t demand you back in the office.
Full goblin mode.
Goblin mode is the completely rundown, degenerate condition of normie striving in fully burned-out retreat. And it’s definitely real. The rates of burnout-induced quitting in big tech companies (and this during a period of rising wages) spiked last year.
A milder version of this happened in the global financial crisis of 2008-11, and I’m convinced it contributed to the birth of the 4-hour-workweek lifestyle design free agent trend.
Note that goblin mode isn’t the normal sort of depression that can hit individuals at any time, and drive them into an existential crisis. That sort of thing is usually triggered by some combination of specific personality traits and specific life circumstances. Paul Millerd wrote a great book recently, The Pathless Path, which explores that individual pattern.
Goblin mode is when circumstances change at a macro level, throwing off everybody’s calibration on the effort/reward equation of life, rendering it unsolvable, causing an epidemic of goblinhood.
You could, of course, keep descending further, but for most people, there seems to be a natural rock-bottom they can hit. A point at which you decide life is worth living after all, and that this is no way to live.
By the gnome-pill theory, that’s supposedly the start of the ascent into gnome mode.
It is sort of interesting that the two example memes (as well as others I’ve seen) seem to focus on the archetype of the garden gnome in particular. The kind people like to put in their gardens. The gnome is still a domestic figure, but it has ventured outdoors tentatively, into a garden, and is re-engaging with the larger world at a very local level. In better times, the Travelocity gnome traveled the world.
The attributes of gnomehood, as portrayed in the two memes, are worth pondering.
Take the gnome pill and wake up in the garden, a jolly fellow
…The planet desperately needs more mischief-makers, gardenwatchers, mushroom lovers, pranksters, mirthful chucklers, and jolly fellows of all kinds
This seems to represent an antithesis of sorts to the rundown state of degenerate goblinhood, but it isn’t a revved-up return to the old normal, back to the old, active, full-tank-of-gas striving for success/treasure goblinhood. That is clearly a possibility. For some, degenerate goblinhood is merely a period of recovery and restoration. You put on the suit and tie and go back out there, business class.
But for others, it is a period of renewal and resurrection into a new form: gnome mode.
It is a return to a new normal of sorts, with a different set of priorities. A condition of convivial mutuality with other life. A reboot into an entirely different operating system. Entirely different patterns of relationships with everything, starting with the laundry.
Who knew. You were running a hypervisor with two modes available to you: goblin and gnome. When the goblin retreats enough, it can die and be reborn as a gnome ascendant. The question is: Is this a permanent level-up into a higher mode of being (Hypothesis A), or can the gnome retreat into its own kind of degeneracy, and be reborn as a goblin too (Hypothesis B)? Is the goblin/gnome pair a kind of yin-yang cycle, or do they represent lower/higher stages of being?
Hypothesis A is that gnome mode is a sort of karmic liberation and level-up from goblin mode. The case for it is fairly strong.
Paul Millerd’s book (which I started reading on the plane last week and am almost finished with) has a lot of good insight into this process, including a touching personal account of his own descent into goblin-hood, existential crisis, and re-emergence into gnome-hood. I navigated my own version of that journey when I went free-agent in 2011, though I was never quite as strongly into goblin mode as Paul apparently once was. On the other hand, I think I’ve plugged less completely into gnome mode than he apparently has now. I’m still pretty goblin, and I don’t exactly mind it.
But let’s take the Hypothesis A at face value and speculate about how it might work. How might a life posture and operating system based on (say) relaxed convivial mischief-making and jolliness in deep, energized harmony with the environment actually work? Why might it be sustainably bounded away from goblin regimes of striving and burnout cycles?
Reflecting on my own gobliny rundown-ness lately, it strikes me that there is a fundamental connection between the goblin/gnome dichotomy, and what I think of as the unit economics of maintenance labor.
In particular, goblin mode is fundamentally an artifact of people trying to survive in a world with a strong three-way owner/renter/maintainer divide.
In goblin-world, when you are a renter in any sense, you operate under conditions of moral hazard. You do not take care of the wealth under your stewardship as if it were your own. You are careless with it. So it degrades faster and in more dangerous ways. The thing is neglected.
On the flip side, when you are an absentee owner/landlord of a capital asset, you operate under a different moral hazard. Financialization and distance allow you to simply build wear-and-tear into the (very low) cost of capital, and you neglect it the way slumlords do — returns are high enough it’s cheaper to let things run down than to invest in tender, loving, life-extending care of property. When you do have to restore things to rent them out again, you are incentivized to do the minimal amount of cosmetic maintenance that will get it generating returns again.
Caught in the middle are the professional service class of maintainers, who are tasked with the care of property they neither own, nor use, and exists in a state of extreme neglect from both owners and users. They don’t care, so why should you? So as any kind of maintainer, you phone it in too. You make it look good even as it’s rotting away inside.
This is why maintenance feels so burdensome and draining under conditions of goblin modernity. Nobody has an incentive to do it right, which means things exist in conditions of extreme neglect and rapid degeneration, which drives a vicious cycle of maintenance not being done right, leading to even more run-downness. Things are treated as disposable and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is of course costly in many ways, but goblin modernity has a way to deal with it — replace-over-repair economics, high waste, high energy use, high environmental impact, and paradoxically, a culture of impersonal and non-customized maintenance that aspires to repeated, costly restorations to “like new” condition where replacement is too costly to be the default option. 4 The artifact being maintained is never allowed to truly age into an idiosyncratic longevity, and acquire a personality through a kind of wabi-sabi life evolution. Instead, it is kept “like new” at very great cost until it’s finally not worth it, and then it’s trashed entirely.
In the laundry cycle equivalent, this would be like only wearing cheaper new clothes once before discarding them, and sending more expensive things to the dry cleaners to be restored to like-new state after use. You never enter the degenerate laundry cycle because you never have to do laundry yourself at all.
Viewed through this lens of ownership, use, and maintenance being mutually alienated, goblin mode is that condition of the human self with respect to itself. You treat yourself as the property of a neglectful absentee landlord, you rent yourself out to users who neglect you as well, and when you break down, you hand yourself over to professional maintainers — the healthcare system — who try to restore you to “like new” state like you’re an insured car.
In a way, you never really exist except when you’re at home, which you minimize. The premium mediocre trisected life is lived in public.
When you’re closer to the “like new” end of the cycle, you are in a state of premium-mediocre good repair, checking all items off a cosmetic appearances checklist for wholeness and wellness. Then you run yourself down, get restored again, and repeat. Each time, the cycle runs faster until you destroy yourself.
Normally, it kinda works. But with a Great Weirding and pandemic… not so much. Everybody was forced indoors, first gently, then forcefully, by an increasingly hostile environment. Whether you liked it or not, you were forced to be owner/user/maintainer all at once.
Viewed from this lens again, gnome mode is the restoration of a relationship with yourself where you are owner, user, and maintainer, all in one, and like it. All the roles are aligned and coincident, and you behave accordingly. Your body and your self are one, and in harmony with the environment.
You can see this ethos spreading through the economy, beyond just your bodily self. Through the pandemic, pragmatic supply and resilience considerations made ownership (or more generally, “fat” thinking) more attractive. We’re now swinging away from it again, but to the extent the move towards owner-user-maintainership was a move to fill a spiritual need, I think the shift will endure. High interest rates help — you need to get more out of the capital you have, under harder conditions.
But I’m very reluctant to conclude from this rough analysis that gnome mode is either superior to goblin mode, or that it can endure indefinitely.
Goblin modernity, and the separation of ownership/use/maintenance it forces, have their dark side (on full display today), but when ascendent, it is a very powerful force of creative destruction, net growth, innovation, evolution, and wealth-recycling.
I suspect there is such a thing as degenerate gnome mode too — a condition of stagnation, slow degrowth, high-inertia traditionalism, lack of innovation, claustrophobic connectedness with people you can’t get away from, things being nurtured to live on long past the point where they ought to be recycled, and so on. Uncritical gnome mode seems like a naturally reactionary condition to me, just as uncritical goblin mode seems like a naturally high-modernist condition.
We’re in the darkest valley of goblin mode now, and gnome mode looks very attractive from our perspective today. But a day may come once again when unbundling ourselves and our environments into owner/user/maintainer will be the right thing to do, and gnome mode will give way to goblin mode again. But that day is probably not today.
Today, getting to gnome mode seems to be the thing to aim at. It seems to be the only path available for revitalizing a terminally rundown world. And since we can neither replace this world, or restore it to some mythical “like-new” utopian condition, we have to find a different mode of being in it.
At the risk of straining the fantasy metaphor to the breaking point, perhaps dragons sitting on hoards of gold are really just wealthy goblins
For many in the US, “stimmy” checks apparently went straight into speculative trading frenzy on Robin Hood, the zero-fee retail brokerage beloved by the degens over at r/wallstreetbets, who have a strong overlap with the DeFi degens of cryptoland
Is this how “smell you later” becomes a default normie greeting in the future? When you only present virtually, you don’t have to smell good, but you owe people a non-smelly personal encounter later perhaps.
Car ownership is a good example. There are gnome-mode car cultures, where temperamental cars are kept running through constant TLC by mechanics who get to know them, and which degrade gracefully, wabi-sabi style, and goblin-mode car culture, where they are heavily computerized, maintained in standardized ways to insurance-dictated standards, get little to no TLC, and acquire no personality.
Of course, technology evolves all the time, so modern cars last far longer in good conditions, pollute far less, get better mileage, and so on. Even most of the smart features, from automatic door locks and windows all the way to self-driving abilities, are on net good.