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In my line of work as an IT Security Engineer it is common to come across articles written by prominent technology companies describing their practices and processes. It is then also common for another organisation to some time later adopt those ways of working with an expectation to see similar success.

I believe this can be an example of a 'cargo cult'. A term that Wikipedia can explain far more eloquently than I can.

However, the term 'cargo cult' appears problematic and pejorative against and not in particular Pacific Island cultures, and I would like to avoid using it.

I am therefore interested in finding alternative words, terms, idioms or phrases (ideally in common use in British English) that describe in a negative light the practice of copying the example of a successful activity and expecting similar results.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4 at 2:55

13 Answers 13

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If you're writing for an IT audience, the term "cargo cult" might be perfectly appropriate. Refer to the Wikipedia entry for cargo cult programming or this article on Medium, "The Curious Case of Cargo Cults and Corporate Innovation."

You do seem to want a slightly pejorative term here, since the practice in question is maladaptive.

I suggest "copycat" or "monkey see monkey do" if you still want an alternative term.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4 at 2:56
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I'm going to give you a sad answer:

There isn't one.

I posted the same question quite a while ago on an "inclusive language" forum and the dozen people there -- folks who are paid to think about making language more inclusive for IT professionals -- were unable to come up with an alternative.

Since we cannot use discriminatory terminology in technical documentation, we've had to resort to less descriptive phrases like "mindless duplication" or even "copying without understanding", but there's nothing that really substitutes for the phrase.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4 at 2:56
  • I think mocking had a similar meaning (as in, "a mocking smile") once upon a time.
    – TLDR
    Oct 16 at 20:30
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Magical thinking is a possibility. Wikipedia defines it as "the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them, particularly as a result of supernatural effects".

It's often used in the context of superstitions such as "If I do this, my sports team will win." (Healthline article) But it can be extended to programming beliefs that verge on superstition such as "if I put X in my code it will work" or "if I use X language it will work", and it has been used in the context of software engineering: TechRepublic, Wrong Side of Memphis blog.

It doesn't directly relate to copying other successful models, but does relate to doing things without understanding why they'll work or not work, as a result of irrational beliefs.

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    Oooh, magical thinking is good. However, it's a broader class of actions of which cargo culting is a specific example. I wonder if we can come up with a modifier for "magical thinking" that is the specific cargo cult case?
    – FuzzyChef
    Feb 3 at 19:34
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    I'd say magical thinking is a bit different - cargo-cult definitely implies an attempt to copy rational and effective behaviour without understanding the rationale or the mechanism that makes it work (and getting it wrong). This is an attempt to emulate competence without the required information or skill. Magical thinking is decidedly not an attempt to emulate rational competence, but rather expressly embraces irrationality as a fundamental belief.
    – J...
    Feb 3 at 21:01
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It's a verb rather than a noun, but "ape" might be useful.

From Mirriam-Webster:

ape verb, transitive verb

: to copy closely but often clumsily and ineptly

She apes the speech and manners of the rich.

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Copying parrot-fashion, or 'parroting' almost works, although unfortunately is only applied to saying, rather than doing, things without understanding them.

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The Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura propounded the theory of observational learning, and one of the key concepts of the theory is vicarious reinforcement.

There is no pejorative connotation here unlike with cargo cults and you could therefore exploit the meaning of the term to suit your purpose.

Reinforcement that occurs when you imitate the behavior of someone who has been reinforced for that behavior, as when avoiding hot water having seen another person burned by it.

[Wiktionary]

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The behaviour being described is that of imitation.

In terms of describing a body of people engaged in imitation, but lacking any understanding of how their behaviour relates to their goals, I'm not sure one can do much better than cargo cult if the intention is to suggest that the imitative behaviour is not in fact related to the goals. It is difficult to avoid the pejorative connotations.

And in any context where people are expected to have a command of their subject, and at least a tacit understanding of how means relate to outcomes, then it is difficult to avoid a pejorative connotation even if the imitation is successful, because the intent is still to observe that the imitators do not understand why their behaviour produces the beneficial outcomes, and to cast them as fools or pretenders.

You might idiomatically say that they are operating on blind faith, and as a group they comprise a body of the faithful, rather than a body of the learned. But again in any technical arena, it can only be pejorative.

It's a common enough behaviour amongst individuals who are following some sort of moral leadership, but in the IT industry case as in the original context of the Pacific Islanders whose behaviour the word "cargo cult" was coined to describe, the implication is often that people are engaged autonomously in some sort of followship based just on what they have seen, rather than actually engaged in a close interaction with a leadership which has a decent understanding.

The only other thing I ever heard that seems to describe this, in a context I've since forgotten, is that people are behaving "like gibbons with access to welding equipment", and thus taking on a task or responsibility far in excess of their expertise, but that's not a recognised idiom and it was of course nakedly pejorative.

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“Follow (in) the footsteps” is fairly idiomatic and can be used to refer to a company as in:

Following Google’s Footsteps, Apple Creates a Company to Sell Wholesale Renewable Energy

(greentechmedia.com)

Corporations following the footsteps of Start-ups

(kps.com)

Following the footsteps of the most successful names in tech.

(itbusiness.ca)

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    This term implies success, where OP is looking for a term that emphasises on doing the same in the hope of achieving the same as the one they're copying.
    – CodeCaster
    Feb 3 at 7:29
  • @CodeCaster - I don’t think the expression implies necessarily a successful result, but just an effort to do as well as your predecessor did.
    – user 66974
    Feb 3 at 7:47
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    Sorry, wasn't paying full attention while typing that comment. The point in "cargo cult" is something like "having no idea what you're doing, but copying something you saw someone else doing", while "following in the footsteps" is more like "doing the same because you're supposed to" (e.g. taking on the same profession as a parent). It doesn't carry across the "clueless" part.
    – CodeCaster
    Feb 3 at 7:53
  • @CodeCaster - well, the way I understand the question is that a number of companies try to “imitate” the business of other successful companies . But that cannot be clueless, they are investing money and resources. And the OP isn’t happy with cargo cult for its pejorative nuance. In that sense, follow the footsteps, conveys the idea of a possible productive way of copying business.
    – user 66974
    Feb 3 at 7:56
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    Yeah but cargo cult is more about doing the motions, than actually following. Its more about copying some behavior without the underlying functions needed for the behavior. So for example giving patients a needle with saline solution isn't the same as injecting a vaccine. But it looks like the same thing. Expecting the same results is madness.
    – joojaa
    Feb 3 at 12:35
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Probably go for a descriptive term - I like

Mindless copying

Or

Mindless copying of best practices

E.g. as used in https://www.flowtoolz.com/2019/08/24/architecture-is-principled-software-development.html

It is not as precise as “Cargo cult” but it more or less works in context.

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When you're talking about an organisation applying rules in the hope they will solve a problem without really understanding the root cause of the problem, this is often called a

silver bullet

This is an especially common term in software development, to the extent that Fred Brooks wrote a famous article called No Silver Bullet back in 1987.

This may actually be a more common term than "cargo cult", and has no negative cultural baggage.

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    Silver bullets are actually a good thing that works well. The fact that it's rare to actually find a real one is the problem.
    – Echox
    Feb 3 at 16:24
  • @Echox It's not they're rare, it's that (as Brooks said) they don't exist. The point is that something which worked well in one context won't magically solve your problems when you apply it in a completely different context without understanding what it was doing and why it worked in the first place. Which makes this synonymous with "cargo cult" practises, of course.
    – Graham
    Feb 3 at 16:49
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Cargo cult programming is essentially a jargon term. Its slang. So we can feel at liberty to find or invent another way to express the same concept, even of there isn't an exact similar phrase ready-made.

The phrase actually signifies, the idea that something has worked once, and because the programmers don't really understand what's gone on, they ritualistically/automatically include the same code or coding practices in their work, without really checking or understanding what its doing or why, because "that's how we've always done it and it worked, so let's keep doing it".

Its for that reason it is also described as ritual, or magic thinking.

How else could we express the same basic idea in a way that captures the imagery and imagination? Here are some ideas, not all are exact but maybe some will be exact enough for your situation.

  • the company's culture - where culture means how things work internally, its sacred cows and white elephants and so on.
  • copy-paste programming
  • historical/outdated/unthinking practices
  • old retained practices
  • magical beliefs/believing in magic

Make up your own!!

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Folklore

Example at https://utcc.utoronto.ca/~cks/space/blog/unix/TheLegendOfSync

There is persistent bit of folklore in the Unix world that you should do several sync commands before shutting down or rebooting a Unix machine [...]

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Alternative terms could be a craze, a fad or a fashion. These terms also suggest that the activities in question are being imitated.

There's nothing wrong with calling some group activity a cargo cult. The term is meant to be pejorative as it signals the speaker or writer's attitude towards it and this is a signifying act that is part of the meaning of the term.

In that sense, the terms fad or craze are the closest synonyms, in that they cannot be interpreted other than pejoratively, whilst fashion can be either way, depending on the writer or speaker's intentions signalled in the rest of the sentence or piece of text.

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