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.
I have tried in this book to engage with a range of disparate theoretical perspectives. On the one had there is a clear influence from Bruno Latour and other writers on actor networks. In archaeology this aspect of new materialism is associated with Symmetrical Archaeology – that is an archaeology that places humans and things in the same networks and refuses to privilege and separate human from nature. My emphasis is rather different in that I focus on the entrapments and path dependency caused by human-thing networks, and as a result I argue that human-thing relations are always asymmetrical; humans and things always work both together and against each other. My approach is more similar to that of Timothy Ingold, who describes meshworks, in that I place an emphasis on the sequences of human-thing action that generate flows of energy. Again, my emphasis differs in that I am interested in the entrapments that result, in the inequalities that are produced, and in the directionalities that can be both positive and negative for the species.
Another and very different set of theories that I am responding to is neo-evolutionary. As noted in my response to the first prompt, much evolutionary theory in archaeology argues that human evolution is not directional in some overall sense; it is nonteleological. Certainly, there is local adaptation as species respond to local environmental stimuli, but there is no reason why these local adaptations should lead in some overall direction. This is true of both biological and cultural evolution. Recent developments have incorporated the human-made material environment into cultural evolutionary theory. In particular, Niche Construction Theory has explored the ways in which the human-made environment can play a significant role in the selection of traits (cultural and biological). While I see this as a welcome step in the right direction, it still treats the organism as responding to environmental change rather than being trapped within human-thing entanglements, and it still sees cultural and biological evolution as separate (as in dual transmission theory). Recent developments in the understanding of epigenetics and horizontal gene transfer are opening up new vistas in which we can begin to envisage the cultural entering directly into the biological. In this way the biological can take its place as part of evolving entanglements rather than as simply adapting to environments.
I think that Chapter 4 on ‘humans and things’ would be the best starting place. This is because it is here that I explore the ways in which it is difficult to define or describe ‘things in themselves’. Rather, I argue that the very concept of ‘thingness’ leads to notions of networks, webs, and entanglements. For example, you might try to define a ‘wheel’, but you very quickly run into the problem that a wheel cannot function as a wheel without an axle, and the axle only works if held in place on a vehicle of some sort, and the vehicle can only function if it is on a road, and roads require institutions or groups to make and maintain them, and so on. So, things always involve dependencies on other things, even if we prefer to think of them as separate objects. It is this thingness that entraps humans into managing and coping with systems of things.
And I also like this chapter because it uses a telling example: cotton. As a species we don’t really need cotton. In most parts of the world we managed fine with skin, linen, wool, silk, felt, and so on for millennia before cotton became widely used. It was a particular set of historical circumstances that led to the global trade. The ability of the Dutch and British East India Companies to use force to control trade between Europe, India, Africa and the New World led to the massive expansion of cotton production and use, as well as to many entrapments for humans, including slavery and appalling workhouse conditions in the factories of early industrial Britain. In the book I show how problems in this international system led to innovation in cotton spinning that further entangled humans in greater dependencies on things. Cotton factory owners were caught in a double bind – they depended on cotton for the livelihood, but that drew them into slavery, political change, and into further dependence on spinning technologies and all the demands of water and steam power. The more they used things the more they used things.
I have wanted to make an intervention into current debates about issues of planetary concern, in particular the debates about global warming and environmental crisis. I have been very struck at how the focus is usually placed on human relationships with the environment and energy use. For example, in both Al Gore’s films An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel the emphasis is on humans and their impact on the climate and the need for renewable energy. Neither film really probes at any great depth the reasons we are using so much energy. A part of the answer is undoubtedly our dependence on things. But we don’t look at that. Our dependence on things is so obvious that we take it for granted and try and find an answer outside ourselves in renewable energy. Or we have become so persuaded by high capitalism that our happiness depends on things that we cannot question that dependence. Increased use of renewable energy sources may contribute towards solving global warming, although the extent to which this is possible remains unclear given path dependency. But the fix also involves us in new entanglements such as lithium mining and complex energy saving and management systems. As an example, solar panels only last about 30 years, and there are projects worldwide to produce them in their millions such that toxic waste from used solar panels now poses a global environmental threat, with solar panels creating 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. (I am aware of the contention surrounding such estimates.) And some of the geoengineering solutions for dealing with CO2 emissions such as sulfur dispersion in the upper atmosphere involve enormous technological investment.
The primary response to global warming, and indeed to the other great scourge of our times, global inequality, is to find technological solutions to, for example, providing renewable energy or various forms of aid. We think we can fix things by using more things, as part of a complex set of multi-stranded responses. This is what we have always done, and the message from an ‘archaeological’ scrutiny of the long-term is that the result will be yet more entanglement and entrapment and inequality. People often blame the last 200 years of industrial capitalism, but the archaeological view is of a much longer term and deeper human propensity towards human-thing entanglement. Consumerism produces inequality and contributes to global warming and it derives from longer-term trends. Alternatives such as decluttering, sustainable shopping, minimalist living, seem important at the grass-roots level, while no-growth capitalism and stronger global governance seem worth exploring at the structural level. But the long-term view is of ever-increasing dependencies.
My contribution is to say that in our responses to global warming we are doing what we have always done. The likely result will be an ever-greater entanglement with things such that material things and technologies will become increasingly part of our lives, and we will become increasingly dependent on them and on the technological systems that run them. We will all increasingly be cyborgs lost in the machines we have made and that determine our direction.
Ian Hodder was trained at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London and at Cambridge University where he obtained his PhD in 1975. After a brief period teaching at Leeds, he returned to Cambridge where he taught until 1999. During that time he became Professor of Archaeology and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. In 1999 he moved to teach at Stanford University as Dunlevie Family Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Director of the Stanford Archaeology Center. His main large-scale excavation project has been at Çatalhöyük in Turkey where he worked from 1993 to 2018.