In a recent New Yorker article “Have Aliens found us?”, there is a reference to cargo cults. The magazine doesn’t go into detail, but cargo cults are super interesting in their own right, so here’s a little post about them.

When military bases popped up in the Pacific, they met islanders who were isolated from technology until then. And from the locals’ perspective, they got introduced to a lot of new stuff all the sudden. They’ve also seen the stationed military personnel engage in weird rituals on the island.

Islanders observed as Westerners went on to turn on some lights, then climbed a tower to make funny moves. In a short while an aircraft flew over to drop crates of weapons, food and other interesting stuff.

Islanders didn’t know what a factory or an aircraft was, what a radio is for. But the need to find out how things work is only human. So they quickly drew the wrong conclusion that it was God sending cargo to whoever asked for it, and Western people know a way to talk to God.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — the third law of Arthur C. Clarke.

Anybody who has to work hard to get stuff, but learns how to get even better stuff with magic, would do what they did next.

When the military eventually left the island after World War II, islanders started duplicating the observed behaviors. They’ve built fake wooden airplanes, created a “radio” with headphones made of coconut halves, recreated military uniforms and flags. They climbed the tower, made the hand signals and waited.

Waiting ever since.