During the second world war, both Japanese and Allied troops descended upon the islands of Melanesia. This arrival rocked the realities of the local indigenous populations, which had until then been sheltered from outside influence.
Instead of being slowly introduced to technology and modern conveniences, these things fell into their communities, quite literally, out of the sky. Massive amounts of cargo, ranging from clothing and headphones, to canned food and medicine was suddenly just there, with little explanation of its means of creation.
With the conclusion of the war, this came to an end. The troops packed up, the planes took off, and the materiel dried up. This left the locals back where they started. In spite of how they had grown to enjoy these things, they had little understanding of modern technology and manufacturing. In fact, they found such notions so unimaginable that they instead believed these things to be other-worldly and divine.
A few of the more industrious individuals were able to convince their peers that the supply of these gifts could be restored by following certain practices they had witnessed amongst the soldiers. They then codified rituals based on what they had seen. They imitated military drills and landing-strip procedures. They also created effigies to radios, aircrafts, and rifles, using only primitive materials to do so. Imagine: an entire population playing a strange kind of dress-up, hoping that in doing so the airplanes would return with their precious cargo.
This makes for a rather powerful analog to our own culture.
We witness successful individuals, but fail to understand what made them so. This leads us to fall victim to a logical fantasy, in which we imitate what we see, hoping it will bring the same ends. We buy lovely watches and beautiful garments. We drive remarkable cars and dedicate enormous energy to decorating our houses appropriately. We accumulate markers of success, sometimes becoming lost in the process of doing so.
A Rolex doesn’t bring respect; an Armani suit doesn’t turn you into a model; a Mercedes doesn’t generate wealth; a well-designed home doesn’t result in a more interesting life. While these things can lend pleasure and utility, they are most certainly not causation of success.
We might chuckle at how these pre-industrial tribal societies responded to something they didn’t understand; but, we seem less able to recognize similar tendencies in ourselves. Have we become victims of our very own cargo cult?
- I’ve simplified a little, in order to keep the post succinct.
- The Pacific cults of WWII that I’ve described are just one of a number of cargo cults.
- Thanks to Jo Hund, who introduced me to this metaphor.