Cargo Cult Linguistics

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There’s a word missing from the English language.

I know this because I have a thought that English won’t allow me to express directly, a concept that clearly needs a handle so we can package it up and pass it around and maybe stick it in a book or paint it on the wall. But because the concept doesn’t have a name I can’t explain it except by pointing out lots of things that are like it but aren’t quite it.

The original Star Trek series had an episode entitled The Squire of Gothos; it featured an alien who considered himself an expert on Earth based on having observed it from a distance. His understanding of what he saw, however, was fatally flawed by the method of observation; in seeking to recreate he things he had seen, he created “fire without heat and food and drink without flavor”. His distant and alien perspective prevented him from understanding that the point of fire was heat, and that the point of fine food is taste.

After US forces withdrew from Micronesia after WWII, the natives set up mock airfields, dressed themselves as soldiers, and attempt to cause supply planes to land. These cargo cults managed to create impressive facsimiles of landing strips but never managed to land a plane; their technologically primitive perspective stopped them from recognizing that the planes caused the landing strips rather than the converse.

Other people have noticed this missing word and latched on to the cargo cult metaphor to explain it. Richard Feynman coined the term ‘Cargo Cult Science’ in his 1974 Caltech commencement address. The term ‘Cargo Cult Programming’ has also come up — I think the term originated with Eric Lippert in one of his many excellent blog posts. In any case the underlying meaning is the same — understanding the form of something while completely mistaking the function.

After the success of the iMac, Dell came out with a host of low-end PCs in partially-translucent cases. Same pattern — the success of the iMac isn’t a result of the translucent plastic, that’s just one particular form of a more meaningful underlying concept. Subsequent iMacs don’t look anything like the original and are made of radically different materials, but they still have the same underlying nature.

The LG Voyager is being touted as Verizon’s answer to the iPhone, but it’s the same story again. The essence of the iPhone isn’t in any particular input technology or user interface convention; sure those things are revolutionary on their own, but the they’re just incidental. They are expressions of the core nature of the item, not the definition of that nature.

What brings this up? Actually, it’s politics. Reading Democratic positions on national security always makes me wish this word existed, because they all understand at a formal level that they need to support national security to be elected while simultaneously failing to understand what national security really means. It’s not a strictly partisan failing, of course — Republicans on gay marriage manage the same intellectual failure quite frequently — but that’s just what brought it to mind.

I wish someone would discover this word — it would make communicating these ideas a hell of a lot easier — but at the same time I’m itching to hear a Republican candidate blast his opponent for ‘cargo cult security’.


In German, they'd just smash together Imitate (or Copy) and Ignorance and call it a day. Not so much in English, sadly.

The term certainly did *not* originate with me; it is fairly common in hacker culture. It probably did originate as an analogy to Feynman's use of "Cargo Cult Science" though.

I stand corrected. In other news, Eric Lippert commented on my blog, how cool is that?