The intriguing story of the Cargo Cult

Not only is this a great anthropological story, but also an apt analogy of how some modern Western businesses/marketing agencies operate:

“In WW2, planes started to land on New Guinea and Melanesian islands, where they had never landed before. The planes – not understood by the islanders – brought wonders and wealth that the islanders had never seen. Manufactured clothing, canned food, tents, weapons suddenly arrived in vast quantities to equip soldiers. But it also tantalized the islanders who were their guides and hosts. And then suddenly the war ended… and so did the planes and the wealth.

Well the islanders had no idea where all this incredible bounty came from, but they had to develop some theories. And they came to believe that if they could just duplicate the airstrips, they could get the same thing to happen again. Maybe they believed that the foreigners got the bounty from the “ancestors”, and if they had airstrips they could encourage the ancestors to visit directly.

You can imagine them trying to get it right – building the towers, “turning on” the landing signals. They even carved headphones from wood. If only they could get what it was that made those planes arrive.

As told to me by the walking encyclopedia that is Darren Savage via the ineffable Richard Feynman.

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