The Oxford Word of the Year is chosen to reflect the ethos and preoccupations of the past year. This year’s winner was ‘goblin mode’, a newly coined expression which won over the second place contender, ‘metaverse’.
Both words reveal something of our cultural moment, and are a sign of the times we find ourselves in. While these words describe quite distinct phenomena, they are not such distant cousins, and that relationship is worth paying attention to.
‘Metaverse’ is a word used by Facebook (now Meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg who describes it as “the successor to mobile internet” which will allow people “to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are”. In the most optimistic of appraisals, the metaverse describes an online world which feels close to reality; in the future the difference between the real and virtual may feel imperceptible (according to Meta). This move brings us face to face with a technological advance that had hitherto been the preserve of a famous philosophical thought experiment.
American philosopher Robert Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ imagines the dilemma of deciding whether to permanently plug into a virtual world where you are guaranteed to find happiness. In the experience machine, you would be met with a life which delivers an endless stream of positive experiences – these experiences will feel entirely authentic. As philosopher Dr. Peter West describes here, Nozick’s thought experiment is used to highlight that the real is inherently more meaningful than the virtual. It follows that if meaning trumps pleasure, then plugging in is running away from what really matters. As West also points out, with the metaverse we should have significant concerns about ceding our attention over to a profit-making business like Meta (or Facebook as it was previously known).
‘Goblin mode’ describes behaviour that is in some sense adjacent to the metaverse discussion above. According to this Guardian article, goblin mode is essentially about a willful lack of aesthetic, of giving up on acceptable appearances, and giving in to our porcine instincts. In one sense this can be seen as a refreshing move towards honesty; a departure from the impossibly curated lives of Instagram and the wholesome ‘cottagecore’ trend of early pandemic days. Though in another sense, it betokens a kind of giving up on life, perhaps even a rebellion of sorts against it. Until now such rebellion has generally been the preserve of eccentric individuals, but to gather momentum as a wider trend requires some explanation. While circumstances (i.e. pandemic/wfh culture) may have given rise to more slovenly habits, the cyber world has also provided alternative modes of expression. If I am accepted and validated in my online communities, then making an effort in the ‘real world’ becomes less of an imperative. It is perhaps no mere coincidence that the ‘metaverse’ and ‘goblin mode’ have both been defining words for 2022.
These words raise questions for us as individuals, and for the cultures we inhabit. They suggest that we are increasingly sliding out of reality and into the virtual world – as indeed we are if you consider how long we spend on screens. While much screen time will be work and life admin, a sizable chunk will involve escaping into some variety of fantasy, be it gaming, social media or pornography. Fantasy directly addresses our appetites, but fails to deliver the protein we humans need; as singer Lauryn Hill said in her MTV unplugged session back in 2001 “fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need.”
There are many reasons to reject what western culture sells as happiness and success, though escaping into a cyber world is no solution. The battle here isn’t so much between online and offline, it is deeper, older and more basic than that; it is about whether we choose to value truth and reality over fantasy, pleasure and wishful thinking. It was the apostle Paul’s opinion that we need to deliberately and wilfully call out the deceptions that corrupt us, and instead discern the truth, as he urged his readers in Ephesus two thousand years ago to “lay aside the old self which is being corrupted by the lusts of a lie”.
It is helpful to remember that while the Oxford Word of the Year may be descriptive about the past years cultural Geist, it is not prescriptive for the year to come; we do not need to give in to goblin mode and virtual living. As we peer round the corner of 2023, we should be asking ourselves which words we want to be defining for the year ahead. If, like many before us, we seek out what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful, then who knows what new (and better) words we might find to define us in the year ahead.