Friday, June 20, 2014

Innovation and Cargo Cults

Before we go any further, I should explain what exactly a cargo cult is.

During the Second World War, the Allied forces who were fighting against the Japanese Empire stationed forces in the Melanesian islands, a cluster of islands  in the South Pacific to the west of Australia. 300,000 American troops were stationed on New Caledonia (today called Vanuatu), and along with them came massive amounts of manufactured goods - matches, clothing, medicines, tents, tarpaulins, knives, axes, rifles, pots and pans, portable radios, wristwatches, flashlights, motorcycles, jeeps, canned foods, tobacco, and so on. Most of these goods were airlifted to the islands via heavy transport planes or airdropped from the sky.

The islanders, who mostly lived in chiefdoms in a hunter/horticultural society and were largely separate from the wider world until the late nineteenth century, now had a front-row seat in a massive technological war raging across the planet between the world's most advanced industrial nations. The Americans, like the Japanese occupiers of the islands before them, shared the goods with the native peoples in return for their compliance and cooperation. The cargo flowed like magic, and the chiefs distributed the cargo to the people.

Then, one day the war ended, and the cargo planes stopped coming. The Americans went home, the bases were abandoned, and the cargo mysteriously stopped coming from the sky.

The native inhabitants of New Caledonia were profoundly confused by this state of affairs. They wanted to bring the cargo back. The natives rationalized that cargo was not manufactured goods created in European and Asian factories, but rather gifts from ancient ancestors created by spiritual means intended for them but being held back from them by the machinations of the outsiders. They did not know that the four years of Allied occupation was part of a much larger world, one that they had no true conception of, but part of the normal state of affairs - the exception, not the rule, in other words.  They felt that "cargo" was their birthright.

Certain charismatic native leaders promised to bring the cargo back. They rallied others to their cause, and soon so-called "cargo cults" began forming throughout the islands of Melanesia (in truth, some of these existed before the war, but gained more importance after). The leaders of the Cargo Cults combined the materialism of cargo with prophecies of Millenialist revival and promised a return to a past golden age for the peoples of the islands where the dead would return, drudgery would be abolished, and whites removed forever (a myth of progress, if you will). You just had to believe and pray hard enough, and in some cases revive native traditions and eschew European influence and religion. An unknown black American soldier called John Frum was anointed as a new Messiah who would bring back the cargo. In this hope, many native followers of cargo cults  slaughtered their pigs and abandoned their garden plots in anticipation of the second coming, in the manner of the Seventh Day Adventists of 1844 (The Great Disappointment) or the inhabitants of M√ľnster, Germany in 1534.

These cargo cults were later studied by anthropologists to gain an insight into the formation of new religions. Peter Lawrence wrote a book about the cargo cults entitled Road Belong Cargo, and they came to popular attention via anthropologist Marvin Harris' 1974 book, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.

Native leaders saw the cargo had been brought to the island mostly by airplanes, and so constructed elaborate rituals in which the exact behavior of the white soldiers and sailors was imitated in the hopes that this might magically bring the cargo back. Marvin Harris describes the scene:
"The scene is a jungle airstrip high in the mountains of New Guinea. Nearby are thatched-roof hangars, a radio shack, and a beacon tower made of bamboo. On the ground is an airplance made of sticks and leaves. Their airstrip is manned twenty-four hours a day by a group of natives wearing nose ornaments and shell armbands. At night they keep a bonfire going to serve as a beacon. They are expecting the arrival of an important flight: cargo planes filled with canned food, clothing, portable radios, wrist watches, and motorcycles. The planes will be piloted by ancestors who have come back to life. Why the delay? A man goes inside the radio shack and gives instructions into the tin-can microphone. The message goes out over an antenna constructed of string and vines: 'Do you read me? Roger and out.' From time to time they watch a jet trail crossing the sky; occasionally they hear the sound of distant motors. The ancestors are overhead! They are looking for them. But the whites in the towns below are also sending messages. The ancestors are confused. They land at the wrong airport."
Steve Randy Waldman gives an excellent description of cargo cult thinking:
"A cargo cult is a particularly colorful way of mistaking cause for effect. Airplanes do not actually come to remote Pacific Islands because of rituals performed by soldiers at airports. But absent other information, to someone with no knowledge of the larger world, it might well look that way. So when the soldiers leave and the airplanes full of valuable stuff no longer come, it’s forgivable in its way that some islanders populated the abandoned tarmacs with wooden facsimile airplanes and tried to reenact the odd dances that used to precede the arrival of wonderful machines. It is forgivable, but it didn’t work. The actual causes of cargo service to remote Pacific Islands lay in hustle of industries vast oceans away and in the logistics of a bloody war, all of which were invisible to local spectators. Soldiers’ dances on the tarmac were an effect of the same causes, not an independent source of action. That is not to say those dances were irrelevant to the great bounty from the skies. An organized airport is part of the mechanism through which the deeper causes of cargo service have their effect, so something like those dances would always be correlated with cargo service. But even a perfectly equipped and organized airport will not cause airplanes sua sponte to deliver valuable goods to islanders. A mock facsimile even less so."
Nassim Taleb also refers to this mode of thinking in his book Fooled by Randomness:
Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm.”
I contend that "growth" and "innovation" have become the cargo cults of the modern age. For example, here is a recent article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, The Capitalist's Dilemma:
We’re happy to report that we think we’ve figured out why managers are sitting on their hands, afraid to pursue what they see as risky innovations. We believe that such investments, viewed properly, would offer the surest path to profitable economic and job growth...In our view the crux of the problem is that investments in different types of innovation affect economies (and companies) in very different ways—but are evaluated using the same (flawed) metrics. Specifically, financial markets—and companies themselves—use assessment metrics that make innovations that eliminate jobs more attractive than those that create jobs. We’ll argue that the reliance on those metrics is based on the outdated assumption that capital is, in George Gilder’s language, a “scarce resource” that should be conserved at all costs. But, as we will explain further, capital is no longer in short supply—witness the $1.6 trillion in cash on corporate balance sheets—and, if companies want to maximize returns on it, they must stop behaving as if it were...Before we get to the solutions, let’s look more closely at the different types of innovation.
Investment, innovation, growth, jobs; investment, innovation, growth, jobs... It's almost like a chant. If you read between the lines, you'll see that we require generic "innovation" to produce generic "growth" (in what?) to produce the appropriate quantity of generic "jobs (doing what?)." This is the mantra of modern capitalism. Thus, what they are really saying is, we need innovation not to solve any particular problem, but to create enough full-time jobs so that people can earn wages to support themselves. Does this strike anyone else as a bit odd in terms of reasoning?

How do we create innovation? By doing what we've always been doing, of course. Construct more of those thatched roof hangars and wooden log airplanes! How we do know this will work? Well it's always worked before. After all, it's worked for the past 150 years, hasn't it? But isn't this the same line of thinking as those natives in Melanesia?

I think it’s self-evident that waiting for generic “innovations” that “we can’t even imagine” to fix our mounting social and economic problems is cargo cult-like behavior. As Wikipedia states, “The term "cargo cult" has been used metaphorically to describe an attempt to recreate successful outcomes by replicating circumstances associated with those outcomes, although those circumstances are either unrelated to the causes of outcomes or insufficient to produce them by themselves.”

Just like those natives, we’re replicating the same behavior in the hopes the good times will come back. Let's get lets of scientists in white lab coats to stare through microscopes and fund research universities. Let's let wealthy fat cats accumulate billions and hope investment trickles down to produce technological miracles. Let's remove taxes on corporations so they will "innovate" more and create jobs for the rest of us. Let's funnel more and more money to "startups," and turn entrepreneurs into superhuman rainmakers. Why isn't any of this working? we're wondering just like the confused Melanesians.

Apparently innovation has taken over the role of progress in earlier generations, as this article points out:
The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.

The word “innovate”—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end. Edmund Burke called the French Revolution a “revolt of innovation”; Federalists declared themselves to be “enemies to innovation.” George Washington, on his deathbed, was said to have uttered these words: “Beware of innovation in politics.” Noah Webster warned in his dictionary, in 1828, “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation.”

The redemption of innovation began in 1939, when the economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his landmark study of business cycles, used the word to mean bringing new products to market, a usage that spread slowly, and only in the specialized literatures of economics and business. (In 1942, Schumpeter theorized about “creative destruction”; Christensen, retrofitting, believes that Schumpeter was really describing disruptive innovation.) “Innovation” began to seep beyond specialized literatures in the nineteen-nineties, and gained ubiquity only after 9/11. One measure: between 2011 and 2014, Time, the Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Forbes, and even Better Homes and Gardens published special “innovation” issues—the modern equivalents of what, a century ago, were known as “sketches of men of progress.”

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.
And just like progress became a secular religion, we're waiting for technological innovation to bring the rains back to our parched desert of a society. Just like those natives, we’re assuming that time we lived in was not unique, that it’s a permanent condition that will continue forever, and that what has happened in the past will continue indefinitely into the future. Our cult-like faith in innovation and progress is reaching ludicrous proportions. By sheer coincidence, this landed in my inbox as I was writing this: Note that Steve Wozniak (like his late business partner Steve Jobs) is regarded as some sort of divinely inspired rainmaker who will confer magic on the attendees to create new startups that will change everything. It’s basically a religious revival in secular drag.

Of course, just like those natives didn't understand the vast trade networks and factories powered by fossil fuels that made cargo possible, the modern cult of economics does not recognize the role of fossil fuels in our modern world. They do not realize that a number of one-time discoveries have made our world possible, that there are diminishing returns to technological innovation, and that we are reaching environmental constraints and resource limits. No, rather than recognize that, we're just going to keep repeating the behaviors of the past 150 years and hope the good times will come back without understanding the root causes of our good fortune. While science has certainly led to many great things in the modern world, one of its central conclusions is that there are limits. Yet this is consistently ignored. For example – it’s impossible to move faster than the speed of light (recent attempts at warp drives notwithstanding). A big one is the laws of thermodynamics – energy cannot be created nor destroyed, and it can only be used once. An engine has a maximum efficiency determined by the Carnot efficiency. Nothing can be colder than absolute zero. There are only 24 hours in the day and the earth is a bounded sphere. These things cannot change.

We like to pride ourselves on our "rational" societies and our "scientific" thinking. But are we really so much smarter and more rational than those cargo cult worshippers waiting for John From on Vanuatu? Don't bet on it.

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