Ian Hodder


On his book Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things

Cover Interview of September 25, 2019

In a nutshell

In this book I grapple with a problem: Is human development directional? Does human evolution move in a particular direction? In recent decades the dominant view in the various sciences of evolution has been that change does not tend in any particular direction. The older 19th century idea of progress and advancement towards a civilized ideal has long been overturned by notions of a directionless process of natural selection. Current theories seek to avoid any notion of teleology and goal in the human story. And yet all archaeologists know that when looked at from a distance, the story of human development has a clear direction in at least one aspect – the amassing of more and more stuff. Humans started making simple stone tools and in the millennia of early human development they amassed small assemblages and made tools that had few parts. Today we produce massive machines such as the Hadron Collider, the largest single machine in the world, that connects 170 computing centers in 36 countries and uses $23.4 million in electricity annually.

This book seeks to marry the archaeological evidence of gradual and then runaway increases in material stuff used by humans with a theory that avoids teleology or goal direction. I outline a theory of human evolution and history based on ‘entanglement’ defined as the ever-increasing mutual dependency between humans and made things. It is widely accepted that humans have become increasingly dependent on technologies and on consumerism, but less emphasis has been placed on the way these human dependencies on things also involve things being dependent on humans. And they involve things being dependent on other things in complex, far-reaching entanglements. Much contemporary social theory describes the networks or webs of humans and things that constitute the modern world, but there has been less focus on how humans become entrapped by these material webs so that movement is channeled down certain pathways. This path dependency lies behind specific historical trajectories and it underpins the global movement towards a directional increase in the human dependence on things.

In the book I use archaeological examples, such as housing or the wheel, but also historical examples such as cotton or opium, to show how material things play an active role in pushing entanglements in particular directions. Much social theory has accepted the agency of things, but I argue that it is not the individual things but the systems of things (that is the thing-thing dependencies) that are crucial. When house walls collapse or spinning technologies can no longer achieve their purpose, new things are brought in to fix the problem. These new things often require further human intervention. Thus, humans are caught in a double bind, depending on things that depend on them so that humans are drawn into yet further dependence on things. Once this process has occurred it is difficult to go back – too much has already become caught up in the new entanglements. So, in our arguments about evolution, I want to replace teleology with irreversibility. The direction is always, over the long term, towards greater human-thing entanglement.