Thursday, August 13

Too Much Information

Welcome to the first edition of Too Much Information, the surly, drunken sibling to “Lost: The Rewatch Column” at Each recap that I've done has given me the opportunity to touch on ideas ranging from religion to scientific theory to literary analysis in my own inimitably amateurish way, but some topics invite more thought (and rambling! can’t forget the rambling!) than a recap allows.

As themes, recurring motifs, and ideas emerge from the story during the Rewatch, and as the inspiration strikes me, I’ll be taking a closer look at them and how they may apply to the story that’s being told. I’ll primarily use the recaps (check them out here in the archive, or visit Chud for the latest!) to do this, but once in a while I’ll want to spend some time delving into a specific topic that appears to be of interest to the writers of Lost in my own scattershot way.

I hope it’s enjoyed. And if it is, why not tell a few friends?

Stimulus/Response and Control Theory, or, How I Learned To Start Behaving And Love Course Correction.

As Season 2 progresses and Season 3 looms closer, Lost appears to be becoming increasingly preoccupied with two ideas (among many others, obviously): Stimulus-Response (which, for our purposes, includes Positive and Negative Reinforcement) and Control Theory/Control Systems.

I say ‘appears to be’ because the act of taking in any work of art or pop culture involves filtering that work through our own biases, interests, interpretations and ideas. In other words, just because I think something is significant/meaningful doesn’t mean that Lost’s writers would agree.

Still, there’s real validity to the idea that art should encourage us to engage with ideas, concepts and information regardless of a creator’s initial intent. As example: Joss Whedon’s work may not explicitly be about Existentialism, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun and educational to see how Existentialism influences and colors the world view of his shows. In doing so we gain additional appreciation for the potential depth of narrative storytelling and we learn something more about the Great Wide World around us.

So, today: Stimulus-Response and Control Theory.

The introduction of the Swan is an introduction to both of these concepts, and both of them will come to have increasing relevance in terms of potentially interpreting Lost and some of its philosophy/reasoning.

The Swan serves two potential ‘practical’ purposes, neither of them exclusive of the other:

1) It operates as a Skinner Box (more formally known as an Operant Conditioning Chamber).
2) It operates as a Control System.

According to the always-reliable (except when its not) Wikipedia, a Skinner Box is “a laboratory apparatus used in the experimental analysis of behavior to study animal behavior.” A Control System is likewise defined as “a device or set of devices to manage, command, direct or regulate the behavior of other devices or systems.”

Why are these two concepts important to Lost? Let’s start with the Skinner Box.

The Swan will not be the only appearance of a Skinner Box on the Island. The next most obvious example will be the Bear cages introduced at the beginning of Season 3. In both instances, the basic makeup of the Box consists of a closed-off area (Hatch/cage) furnished with ‘response levers’ (In the Hatch, this is The Button – in the cage these are the various buttons/pedals that dispense either fish biscuits or electric shocks).

By furnishing both positive and negative reinforcement via the response levers, it is possible to investigate psychological phenomena and further, to change behavior through stimulus and response. Crudely and reductively, the Skinner Box affords an observer the opportunity to provide positive and/or negative reinforcement to the box’s subjects. Push the right button and you get a reward. Push the wrong button (or refuse to press The Button) and get a punishment.

It further offers those subjects the opportunity to learn from their experience of these reinforcements, and to make future choices based upon what will reward them versus what will punish them.

The Swan’s magic Button, with its promise of World-ending catastrophe if it is not pushed, gives us an interesting example of these reinforcements. If the Button is pushed, a ‘good’ result occurs – namely, the world doesn’t end. If the Button is not pushed, a ‘bad’ result occurs. This manifests, first, in the sounding of alarms and then in the appearance of ominous symbols.

This premise of positive and negative reinforcement – of reward and punishment – arguably underlies every aspect of Lost’s thematic preoccupations (and just existence generally, really), whether it be interpersonal relations, the act of faith, the field of science, the question of ethics, the notion of authority, of rebellion, of freedom itself.

All of these larger concepts can, in one way or another, be simplistically boiled down to the notion of positive and negative reinforcement. Push the right button and you get to sleep with Kate in a bear cage, or get approval, or get respect, or get a ‘right’ answer to a question, or maintain harmony within a community. Push the wrong button and you get a shock, or get rejected, or get a ‘wrong’ answer to a question, or fracture a community.

To an extent this suggests that the characters of Lost are like the bears in the S3 cages, trapped and jabbing at the buttons of their life with a mixture of desperation and bewilderment. They are not free, because they continue to engage in a game/experiment where they unfailingly fail to learn what is arguably the most important lesson of the Skinner Box, which is this: It is a kind of prison. As long as you reside inside it you are captive to an observer, beholden to his or her levers, and less man than animal.

In Season 2 (and in the sections of Season 1 where his Hatch obsession overwhelms him) Locke is like a bear that keeps hitting the wrong button and howling out in pain, asking why the universe is punishing him – and then pushing the same button again. the question becomes: is the Hatch (and whatever force/power/entity compelled Locke to discover it) conditioning Locke for his fate as a puppet? Or is it, instead, trying to break him of the conditioning that will, unless broken, make him a puppet?

Now that I’ve bored/perplexed you, let’s talk a little about Control Theory and Control Systems.
A Control System is “a device or set of devices to manage, command, direct or regulate the behavior of other devices or systems.”

The Button is just such a Control System – designed to manage and regulate the behavior of a system which (apparently) allows for the safe dispersal of electromagnetic energy. Lost features a literal Control System with The Swan, but it’s also fascinated by figurative Control Systems – power hierarchies (see: Dharma and the castaways with their ‘circles of trust’ and the Others, with their rule that only the Leader may see Jacob, and even then only if Jacob permits it), religion, governmental interference and other social systems.

Some of these systems are arguably ‘good’ (see: community) and it can be argued that all such systems are ‘good,’ so long as they remain uncorrupted.

Here’s where things get interesting - Control Systems are a subdivision of what’s known as Control Theory, a term defined by Wikipedia as “a theory that deals with influencing the behavior of dynamical systems.”

From the same article:
“In a closed-loop control system, a sensor monitors the output (the vehicle's speed) and feeds the data to a computer which continuously adjusts the control input (the throttle) as necessary to keep the control error to a minimum (that is, to maintain the desired speed). Feedback on how the system is actually performing allows the controller (vehicle's on board computer) to dynamically compensate for disturbances to the system, such as changes in slope of the ground or wind speed. An ideal feedback control system cancels out all errors, effectively mitigating the effects of any forces that may or may not arise during operation and producing a response in the system that perfectly matches the user's wishes.”

Does that sound like anything to you? To me it sounds an awful lot like Course Correction – that mysterious phenomenon Lost continues to explore. Look at this chart:

Take away the names in the boxes and just examine the diagram itself. It perfectly illustrates the path that Lost’s castaways have taken through time in Season 5, breaking away from the forward momentum of the flow of time and arcing neatly backward to an earlier ‘system restore point.’

If I’m right, then the trip the castaways have taken back in time is a mammoth instance of course correction – an attempt to compensate for disturbances within the system, and the system is time itself.

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