Just a couple quick follow-ups.
Mike Spille has some good comments tying the relationship between cargo cult programmers and abstraction layers together.
Mike Gunderloy wonders if I’ve ever read Steve “Code Complete“ McConnell’s Cargo Cult Software Engineering essay. I have now — thanks! However, this essay is about cargo cultism amongst managers of software teams, not the developers themselves.
What this really shows is that imitating form without understanding content is a methodology in many disciplines. It is certainly not limited to the engineering professions! In fact, this problem in a completely unrelated discipline has been on my mind lately.
As Professor Thingo mentions in his recent blog entries, in addition to knowing a thing or two about scripting languages, I’m also an expert on the life and work of JRR Tolkien. I have the dubious distinction of being the first person to put a Tolkien fan page up on the Internet. For many years that page was the first result returned by Google searches for “Tolkien”, which got me a lot of email from kids doing book reports and a number of unintentionally hilarious interviews with newspapers when the first Peter Jackson movie was released. The admins of the university server upon which the page resided finally noticed that I’d graduated eight years earlier and removed it some time last year; it had not been updated since 1997 and was a mass of dead links.
But I digress. I think that it is safe to say that the vast majority of fantasy genre fiction produced in the last fifty years apes the form of The Lord of the Rings without coming close to the quality of the content. Want to sell books? Put a map in the back, have a few plucky short guys with swords go up against evil incarnate to save the world, and wait for the royalties to roll in. (See Tom Shippey“s excellent book Author of the Century for an in-depth analysis of this fact.)
Peter Jackson, in one of his Oscar acceptance speeches thanked the Academy for looking beyond the form — the elves and wizards and hobbits — to the underlying moral thematic core of the work. And you have to look beyond it; most genre fantasy is derivative dreck, not to put too fine a point on it, and that prejudices people against it. (A notable exception would be the early work of Guy Kay, who was Christopher Tolkien’s assistant when he was editing The Silmarillion. I haven’t read any of Kay’s recent work, so I don’t know if it is still of such high quality.)
Cargo cultism is everywhere.