"The history of human culture is written
not in text but in objects"

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Sam Jacob Opinion on prehistoric design Stonehenge image from Shutterstock

Opinion: in his latest Opinion column, Sam Jacob argues that objects tell us more about ourselves than literature or imagery and sets out his manifesto for "a culture of design informed by archeology and anthropology".


My last column talked about new stuff, about how digital culture is changing our relationship to objects. Now, I'd like to think about old stuff. I'd like to do this as a way of forming a kind of manifesto for understanding objects, whether they might be new or old. A manifesto, in other words, for our relationship with objects - a relationship of very long standing that goes back to the very origins of humanity.

We have a longer relationship with objects than any other cultural form. Things emerged before language and before image making. This fact - along with their propensity to survive in the archaeological record - means we could convincingly argue that the history of human culture is written not in text but in objects.

That objects are themselves a form of language is suggested by the idea that language developed out of the kind of complex, sequential, abstract thinking that object-making required. Design, in other words, preceded and enabled the development of language. We could - and should - think of the record of things as a central plank of the library of human experience that only later includes images and writing. Things, in other words, are a form of literature too.

Like literature, objects are containers of human experience. They are embodiments of thought and knowledge made into material form. We might not know, for example, what Stonehenge was used for, but we can trace the outlines of the intelligence that brought it into the world. Its substance and arrangement are a record of the technologies necessary to build it, the organisation of a society necessary to implement it and the imaginative capability needed to conceive it.

Objects occur at the intersection of spheres of knowledge: at the overlap between science, technology, culture and desire. Even the most mundane of objects acts as a roll call of forms of knowledge and intelligence necessary for it to come into the world - even (or especially) the novelty section of the Argos catalogue talks of mining, processing, transportation, engineering and economics, as well as desire and imagination. Each contributes to the possibility of that particular thing being in the world.

It was this kind of imaginative and intellectual capability emerging in early human culture that brought objects into the world for the very first time. The stuff formed by cosmology, geology and biology became, in the hands of someone, somewhere, the first primitive thing. As this first object came into existence so did a new kind of humanity.

When, say, a lump of stone was struck by another to create a sharper edge, it was also an act that projected our imagination into the world. The newly formed edge was an abstract idea materially formed. Things, in other words, are also concepts.

Once formed, that very same stone tool amplified the ways in which we could act. Even in its most primitive form, design gave us the ability to extend our own body's reach into the world by allowing us to cut in ways our own hands couldn't. At the other end of the technological spectrum, philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan described electronic communications as extending our nervous systems around the globe (and now, even beyond the edge of the solar system). Design produces things that act as bridges and interfaces between our human state and the environment around us.

Once born into the world, objects helped us transform our natural environment. They began a process that shaped nature into synthetic human habitats. Cutting stone, wood or flesh was the first step that eventually created the synthetic worlds of Tokyo, London, Munich, Paris and so on (and, of course, the equally synthetic places that are preserved as a form of nature: Yosemite, the Lake District, Antarctica even: places that are now just as defined by ideology, law and politics as any city).

The world after objects was no longer a given quantity but something constructed. Design - even the design of the smallest of things - is the act of constructing new worlds.

Our relationship with objects might be even more profoundly linked. Just as we make things, things also make us. A human with a stone tool is an entirely different creature to one without - or rather the human capable of conceiving of an object is an entirely different proposition. The act of designing and making is a two-way street. Intention might shape the way we make something, but once made the made-thing acts on us too. The moment the first transformation of rock to object occurred, the possibilities of being human also changed. If design precipitated language, perhaps it brought something else into the world too. Perhaps objects make us human.

The history of humans and things, intertwined as completely as it is, suggests definitions of design which I'll set out here:

We've come a long way since the first object. The sheer quantity of stuff that now surrounds us is overwhelming. Contemporary material culture seems often to be shallow, marked by excessive consumption, over-infused by marketing, inauthentic and exploitative.

Yet these objects and the design cultures that create them are still part of a continuous culture that spirals back into pre history. Judgements of value - monetary, aesthetic, taste or whatever - are only one way of viewing design. In many ways, these kinds of judgements only serve to narrow the definition of design as a fundamental human activity.

Instead we should argue for a culture of design informed by archeology and anthropology, one that recognises its embedded intelligence, its philosophical and radically propositional nature. Even - or perhaps especially - when it's something as seemingly debased as a Hot Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza.


Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.

  • BriH

    You may wish to consider how Marxism stifles design before condemning the capitalist system. I think this was Sam’s best piece yet; clear, concise and well argued. I’m personally glad we don’t all share the same ideology.

  • Loz

    Thank you Citizen, we need more people like you. Such a pity you didn’t add a link to a website. Clearly you’re someone worth following.

  • bonsaiman

    The revolution was canceled because the crowdfunding was weak. People went to the shopping mall, instead.

  • Natalie North

    I love the way you described objects as the first language and extensions of humanity’s imagination. Beautifully written and engaging.

  • Adam

    Sorry for this, but in what universe did things emerged before language and image–making? This can be hardly considered a fact. Unless you take for a thing a stone, or a branch, or a human being.