Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Holy Principal-Agent Theory Batman! Lost thoughts [spoilers]

Before I ponder Lost, a question that was hotly debated during the commercials:
Are the Windows 7 ads depicting different people in the flashback or just made up/altered versions of the person who is thinking that Windows 7 is their idea?  This mystery is actually more important than any of those on Lost.

Pretty rich episode--heaps of stuff.

We learned that evil hates a good metaphor as the still nameless Man in Black broke the wine bottle.

We learned most importantly Jacob's limits: he cannot directly intervene if he wants free will to win the day.  He also cannot resurrect the dead (what does that mean for the pool in the temple, Mrs. Spew wants to know), and he cannot absolve the dead of their sins.

Since Jacob cannot intervene, he needs to hire an agent to do so--hence the principal-agent reference.  For those lucky non-political scientists who are not familiar with P-A theory, the basic idea is that whenever anyone is hired to do something (or enslaved, actually), the principal gives her or him a bit of authority/decision-making/activity over a certain domain.  That agent then develops some advantages--he or she will know more about what he or she is doing than the principal because the principal is delegated precisely because the big P is busy and needs to get others to do the task in question.  The principal can try to oversee the agent, but this is not perfect.  So, the agent can shirk--to do less than what is required or to act differently from what the principal wants.

And this points to one of the biggest mysteries: who was responsible for the mass murder of the Dharma folks--the gassing that Ben initiated with Richard's guidance?  Some have speculated that the Man in Black manipulated Ben so that Ben was not really acting under Jacob's instructions.  Given that Jacob never met Ben before Ben killed him, Jacob really created a poor system of delegation and oversight, one that bred the ultimate in shirking--killing the principal.

Anyhow, Richard became Jacob's agent because he offered him the only way to avoid hell--immortality.  So, now he can tamper with others' free will when he pleases by getting Richard to advise people.  Or advise people directly through Hurley now that he is dead.  It seems to me that Jacob has set up a game that is doomed to fail--that the rules are stacked in favor of Evil, and that starting each round seems to require an intervention of circumstances that does not violate free will but certainly circumscribes it--boat crash, plane crash, etc. 

So, now we come to a key question: is this a religious lesson or social science?  If it is the latter, then Jacob would never have gotten approval from a research ethics board (but he might have gotten a reality TV contract).  After all, he has competing theories of human nature and keeps constructing experiments to test his hypotheses.  And he has a pretty strict philosophy of science--he only has to have it work once to prove MIB/Flock wrong. 

But, of course, as Sara M reminded me quickly on facebook tonight, this is old school religion, with heaps of religious images throughout--crosses, baptism, etc.  So, MIB/Smokey believes that all humans are born flawed and those flaws will win out when given temptation/opportunity.  Jacob believes that the past does not matter, that people are unconstrained.

And I just realized that this might, just might, be the purpose of the flash-sideways.  To show that the past does not determine one's destiny.  Jack finally overcomes his daddy issues with his son, Locke learns to accept his condition, Ford/Sawyer learns to trust, Ben chooses not to pursue power.  Even Kate stopped running to help Claire in both timelines, come to think of it..  Ah, but Sayid remains a killer.  But one could easily argue that his situation in LA constrained choice so much that he do nothing else.  We have seven or eight flash-sideways left (depending on how they count episodes--7 left--if the finale counts as one or two and whether each ep has a flash-sideways).

I really liked the ending with Hurley, Isabella and Richard.  We now know the stakes--Smokey cannot leave.  Even if that means that everyone has to die or remain on the Island or both. 

So, did we get any answers?  Yes:
  • We learned Richard's complete and total origin.  
  • We learned how the Black Rock got to the Island and all the way inland--the mighty wind of Jacob.  
  • We learned what happened to the Statue.  But that raises a new mystery--how much control does Jacob have?  Why did he choose to or accidentally destroy his home.  Or at least his home's exterior decoration.
  • We learned once again that the Lost people (Cuse and Lindelof) like to mess with us--that this is hell and they are all dead.  That was obviously wrong because we learn nothing that consequentional before the opening credits.  And it was too straightforwardly said.  They don't do that with us--they play with our heads.
  • We learned that show is once again a typical TV show--so easy to kill people accidentally.  The doctor getting killed was so easy.  If people were that breakable, well, I would not be writing this blog.  I would have died a long time ago, probably in the Oberlin North Quad, hitting my head on a tree while chasing a frisbee.  Pretty careless use of an overused plot device.  Oy!  Biggest weakness on tonight's show.
  • Apparently, being touched by the Man in Black is not the same gift-giving experience that is Jacob's touch, but oh did Jacob touch the hell out of Richard--with his fists, via the dunking, etc.
  • We have renewed evidence that many but not all dead folks on the island who speak and are tempting are manifestations of Smokey, including Isabella except when she is talking through Hurley.
  • We know now why Smokey hates Jacob--because Smokey wants to leave and Jacob will only let him over his dead body.  Which is what Smokey arranged.
Most importantly, we now have two games being played at once.  Or perhaps one game has replaced the other (those who want to cite Putnam's two level games can go ahead).  The rivalry between Jacob and Smokey (we really need to know his name for blogging purposes alone) over free will vs fate was one game.  But now that Jacob is dead, a second game becomes more apparent and important--keeping Smokey on the Island.  This obviously relates to the first game since Smokey was playing the first game to win the second--get someone to kill Jacob (and prove that folks can easily succumb to their dark side) so that he could leave.  Jacob cared more about the first game, but is now more focused on the second, by telling Hurley directly what to do.  Or one could consider Hurley to be a latter day Richard for the time being. 

Answers or new mysteries?
  • Was white slavery actually practiced much in 1867?   In the Canary Islands?  
  • Which raises an additional question: portraying a Catholic priest as a slave profiteer suggests that Cuse/Lindelof might be very skeptical about organized religion. 
  • The boat was owned and run by Magnus Hanso.  The Hanso Foundation, run by Hanso's grandson, was featured on the Lost Experience, an online supplementary game which I did not follow.  But I do know that the Hanso Foundation funded the Dharma Initiative.
  • Still don't know when Jacob/MIB showed up--long before you arrived.
  • We still don't know who the winning Candidate will be, but that obviously has to wait until the end of the series or close to it.
  • Who are these guys really?  Jacob, as my wife just reminded me, killed a bunch of sailors to start the next round of experimentation.  That would certainly not pass a research ethnics review board.  So, even if he was not directly responsible for the Purge, he does do stuff that deliberately causes much death.  Experimentation seems to be a poor justification.  If doing so was part of an effort to contain or kill Smokey, then one could justify it by focusing on the greater good.
    • The instructions that Smokey gave on how to kill Jacob--identical to those that Sayid received to kill Smokey.  So, they are of the same kind.  But kind is that?
  • How did some of the Oceanic 5 get beamed down and since Sun was not, can we rule her out as a Candidate?

  • Oh, and they got around the "no flashbacks" promise by having Ben tell the tale uninterrupted with no swoosh sounds.
  • Love Hurley's use of Spanish which should not be surprising, but seemed more so than his ability to talk to dead folks.  Which has become super-handy.  
  • Ok, I am not a bible reader--what is the significance of the passage Richard was reading in prison before the priest/slaver stole his bible?  New Testament, with Luke.  Other than that, I don't know.

They are on a roll--Ben, Sawyer, then Richard-centric episodes.  Much rocking!

Remember to answer the key question--the Windows 7 mystery.


Jacob T. Levy said...

We did not learn: why he wears eyeliner.

Mrs. Spew said...

The big issue for me is that it is not a battle of free will versus corruption/fate. Jacob brings the people here against their will. He kills people to do so (the sailors on the ship.) And if it's a battle of free will, why did being resurrected in the temple pool remove free will from Sayid and Claire, turning them into evil crazy folk? Sayid had renounced his past and attempted to be good. Claire had gotten over her past and attempted to be a good mother to her son. They get dunked in the pool and their free will is removed, they are corrupted, yet the pool is supposed to be some tool of Jacob's. So what's the point of Jacob's experiment if some people aren't corrupted into choosing evil but are forced into it by a magical spell?

Both Jacob and Smokey are evil, Jacob's explanation of Smokey is suspect, and there is evidence that Jacob caused Smokey to lose his humanity. Did Smokey ever get dunked in the pool? So this is not a good versus evil story and it's not a free will versus original sin story either. It seems to be more of a kid alien plays with humans as toys tale.

Wendy W said...

OK first off, it's different (more attractive) people in the flashbacks in the Windows commercials...

Now, the good stuff. Great spew, btw. Best yet, I think.

Maybe the reason Jacob couldn't bring back Ricardo's wife was b/c her body wasn't there -- maybe the body has to be there to be resurrected...

The religious tones are definitely more evident now. though we still don't know who are these guys and how'd they get there? What is this heaven/hell on earth?

I am one of those who adheres to the theory that MIB took advantage of poor Ben by making Ben think that MIB was Jacob and that the Dharma massacre was MIB's idea, not Jacob's or his agent's. I have an issue with the P-A thing, btw. I agree with what you said about it, but it just doesn't seem fair that Jacob would be able to get around the restrictions/rules of the game in such a way but I guess that's neither here nor there. After all, MIB is able to get around it the same way by getting someone else to kill Jacob and fair is fair.

Interesting take on the flash-sideways. But is that for US or is that going to happen via some kind of time travel after all this island stuff plays out or what? I do agree that we can see that they (all but Sayid) are redeemed in the alt-reality. The enhanced repeats keep saying that the flash sideways show what would have happened if the plan hadn't crashed but it's clearly much more than that. Wish I could figure out wtf it is ...

Love the two-game theory (or two-level game theory). I'm trying to figure out why Jacob has to die for MIB to get off the island and why he can't just leave now that Jacob is dead.

My head really does feel like it is exploding and I thank you for making it worse (that's a compliment!) :)

I feel like I have more to say but it's late and I can't think!!!

Steve Saideman said...

I concur with Mrs. Spew, not just because she is my wife, but that doesn't hurt: both Jacob and Smokey are not good guys. They are aliens or Gods playing with the lives of mortals (like Greek Gods or the aliens in Under the Dome). But I do think it matters whether Jacob is responsible for mass killings. But then again, as Mrs. Spew reminded us, Jacob probably killed as many people on the Black Rock as Smokey did.

Again, Richard was around during the Purge so either he too was fooled by Smokey or Jacob has some hand in it. I really would like some resolution on this, but the Lost guys may just skip it.

Jacob: Apparently, the actor just has funky eyes. Will have to watch old episodes of the Tick with Nestor as Batmanuel to figure it out.

Jacob T. Levy said...

We have no evidence that Jacob can raise the dead, do we? Sayid wasn't yet dead when Jacob told Hurley to take him to the temple. The pool is for healing, not resurrection-- in Princess Bride terms, it only works for the mostly-dead. And the people Jacob offers to save in the off-island trades, like Dogen's son, are always dying, not dead.

The temple pool didn't work for Sayid because it was already broken by Jacob's death (and had therefore gone cloudy instead of clear). Sayid had *already* chosen darkness in shooting young Ben Linus-- Dogen characterizes what happened to Sayid as his balance between good and evil getting tipped.

Claire was just conned. Smokey appeared to her as the ghost of her father Christian, she followed him into the jungle and then hung out with him for longer than was healthy in the cabin, and only left after Aaron was gone at which point she was easy crazy prey. She never, IIRC, went into the pool. Dogen says she came down with the same sickness as Sayid, not that the whole same sequence of events happened to her.

Mrs. Spew said...

It's not that simple because Claire was tested at the temple same as Sayid, and this was the main reason she fled them. It was implied that she was also in the pool -- before Jacob died. But even if she was not, simply hanging out with Smokey and not actually doing anything wrong turns you crazy evil? That's not free will either. And Sayid shooting Ben was like going back in time to kill Hitler -- the wrong act for good reasons, not an act of deliberate evil, a decision that he understood was a mistake. Whereas clearly his murders in the temple were because he's been made crazy and is no longer able to choose. And why is Ben, who has hung out with Smokey thinking he's Jacob and got manipulated by Smokey with dead visions, not crazy like Sayid and Claire? So they aren't being really consistent here. It doesn't seem to be the balance of good and evil or hanging out with Smokey -- it's presented as being resurrected when your balance of good and evil isn't sufficiently towards good. (Although this leads to the question of why Claire was not sufficiently good.)

As for Dogen's son, it sounded like he was already dead when Jacob made the offer, but I'll agree it wasn't entirely clear.