A Cargo Cult is a system of beliefs and behaviours characterised by ritual and mimicry, but lacking in some fundamental element essential to the goal (the cargo).

During WW2 the allied forces set up shop in the remote Pacific islands of Melanesia, cutting landing strips to supply the war effort in the area. The local populations would share in the air-lifted bounty in return for their hospitality and watched in awe as the soldiers lured giant steel birds from the sky.

When the war ended the troops went home and the cargo stopped coming. The locals were understandably upset and wondered if the gods had grown angry with them.

But they had been paying close attention. They knew exactly how the soldiers had done it. . .

So they would cut landing strips, march in formation and build huts for their ground controllers. They built replica radios, guns and airplanes and trusted their efforts would not go unrewarded.

And so these groups became known as the Cargo Cults.

Richard Feynman then hijacked the term to describe bad science: studies which have the appearance of real research but lack some critical feature.

Software engineers talk of cargo cult programming: the ritualistic perpetuation of practices which may not be necessary at all - but who can recall?

And in product design we are even more willingly wooed by dogma: mimicry of hardware, analog circuitry and re-enactments of ancient workflows in the digital domain.

So we call ourselves "The Cargo Cult"

as a constant reminder that the easiest person to fool is yourself...

In 1889 Reuben Jasper Spaulding received a patent for his revolutionary flying machine: "a machine for navigating the air, and has for it's object to provide a simple, comparatively inexpensive, easily operative, and efficient apparatus of this character".

We like to picture his stocky moustachioed figure at the precipice of a Colorado cliff-top, waiting excitedly for the appointed time to take his place in history. Did he make it? We can't be sure, but given the amount of leather, wood and steel in his design, this may have been his last invention.

So Spaulding's flying machine is a poignant example of Cargo Culting - he mimics the form of nature without really understanding it's mechanism. We can only hope our own efforts will look less like folly 100 years form now.

  The Cargo Cult. is a boutique audio software design company based in Wellington, New Zealand, developing and distributing the products and designs of Justin Webster.
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