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The Cargo Cult




Software Engineering is complex. The essense of Fred Brooks's "No Silver Bullet" was that software takes long to develop because it takes humans long to deal with this complexity.

Today we so often run into the situation where someone publishes some clever idea or solution, and others enthusastically implement this in their project only to be disappointed by the fact that it does not seem to give them the expected benefit. Things that come to mind first are "modular code", Design Patterns and "Object Oriented". More often than not the root cause is a lack of a deeper understanding of the essense of the solution or of original problem. 

This mistake of ritualistically copying what the "Textbook" says has become so systemic in our industry that we needed a vocabulary name to refer to it, and this name is "Cargo Cult Programming". 

The WikiPedia Entry has a pretty neat description - "Cargo cult programming is a style of computer programming characterized by the ritual inclusion of code or program structures that serve no real purpose. Cargo cult programming is typically symptomatic of a programmer not understanding either a bug they were attempting to solve or the apparent solution (compare shotgun debugging, deep magic)."

In short it is a reminder that you should not ritualistically follow any solution without truly understanding what the essense of the solution is. What are the advantages and disadvantages, the trade-offs involved, and why does it apply in your situation? I e.g. recently had a debate with some colleagues about what constituted "Industrial Strength Code", and the claim was made that "Industrial Quality Code" is code that uses State Machines and all function calls are non-blocking. To me this just sounds like a textbook case of Cargo Culting the rituals hoping for the quality to follow. It is after all possible to produce the highest quality code using any programming paradigm provided it is appied at an appropraite place and time.

But I digress... In order to appreciate the term, you really have to read the story of the Cargo Cult!


(This image was found at http://cargocultsoa11.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/cargo-cult2.jpg and was taken by Steve Axford.

The Cargo Cult

Reporter Paul Raffaele: "John [Frum] promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come. … Why do you still believe in him?" 
Chief Isaac Wan: "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth and you haven’t given up hope."

The earliest known cargo cult was the Tuka Movement in Fiji from 1885.

During World War II, the Allies set up many temporary military bases in the Pacific, introducing isolated peoples to Western manufactured goods, or "cargo". While military personnel were stationed there, many islanders noticed these newcomers engaging in ritualized behaviors, like marching around with rifles on their shoulders in formations.

After the Allies left, the source of cargo was removed and the people were nearly as isolated as before. In their desire to keep getting more goods, various peoples throughout the Pacific introduced new religious rituals mimicking what they had seen the strangers do.


In one instance well-studied by anthropologists, the Tanna Islanders of what is now Vanuatu interpreted the US military drill as religious rituals, leading them to conclude that these behaviors brought cargo to the islands. Hoping that the cargo would return by duplicating these behaviors, they continued to maintain airstrips and replaced their facilities using native materials. These included remarkably detailed full-size replicas of airplanes made of wood, bark, and vines, a hut-like radio shack complete with headphones made of coconut halves, and attempts at recreating military uniforms and flags.

Many Melanesians believed that Western manufactured goods were created by ancestral spirits, but the occupiers had unfairly gained control of them (as the occupiers in question had no visible means of producing said goods themselves). The islanders expected that a messianic Western figure, John Frum, would return to deliver the cargo. No one knows who Frum is, nor is there physical evidence he existed, but the islanders continue to ceremoniously honor him. After the war the US Navy attempted to talk the people out of it, but by that point it was too late and the religious movement had taken hold.

Subsequently the people of Tanna have been waiting over sixty years for the cargo to return. Then again, as mentioned in the quote above, Christians have been waiting more than two thousand years for their guy to come back.

Modern cargo cult believers do exist, although most see John Frum and the like merely as manifestations of the same divinity worshiped in other parts of the world, and treat the trappings of the belief as a worship service rather than a magical collection of talismans.


(The full story at  https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cargo_cult reproduced here under CC-BY-SA )

More about Cargo Cult's here on WikiPedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult




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