Easily the most complex of the Dharma Stations, arguably the most important, and infinitely the most confounding. The real trick to this Station is in grasping how much of it is psychological experiment and how much of it is an integral aspect of maintaining the electromagnetic anomaly.
The Swan Station was created, as the Orientation film explained, to study the electromagnetic properties prevalent at that particular point on the Island. We have already seen in Season 5 the beginnings of construction of The Swan Station. And we have, in my opinion, witnessed ‘the incident’ in the episode The Incident. (I appreciate this is a matter of contention for some, but the finer merits of either argument are for another place.)
The explanation about ‘the incident’ and the function of the computer, paraphrased from the mouths of the creators themselves (long before Season 5, I should add), goes like this: Dharma, in their study of the source of the electromagnetism, drilled too deeply and lost control. This fits with what we saw, only it was more Radzinsky’s over-zealous actions than Dharma’s ill-sighted over-ambition. Net result was the same.
Of course, at time of writing, there was a major cliffhanger regarding the detonation of Jughead at the construction site of The Swan. Did the explosion completely destroy the place and therefore create some form of tangent universe where everything we have seen about The Swan has been rendered an offshoot that no longer factors? Personally, I don’t think so. In fast and loose terms, I believe the electromagnetic anomaly ‘consumed’ the nuclear blast – like a large vacuum cleaner sucking up a grenade explosion.
The consequence of ‘the incident’ was that this fissure of electromagnetism was permanently building up. We don’t know if this was as a direct consequence of ‘the incident’, though. It could have been that Dharma continued with the construction of The Swan, completed it, conducted studies there, and then provoked the electromagnetism into building up, as “Marvin Candle” (Pierre Chang, of course) stated in the Orientation film: “Station 3 was originally constructed as a laboratory, where scientists could work to understand the unique electromagnetic fluctuations emanating from this sector of the island. Not long after the experiments began, however, there was. . . an ‘incident’. . .”
Given Pierre Chang lies about his name in these films everything he says in them can't be wholly trusted. I think it's fair to deduce 'the incident' we saw in The Incident created an electromagnetic timebomb of sorts. Dharma, perhaps, were not aware of it immediately and continued with The Swan Station and their plans for experiments whilst the electromagnetic problems got worse, and the need to discharge this build-up became the fundamental purpose.
The computer system was set-up to vent this gushing electromagnetism to stop it building up and causing serious damage the way you'd use buckets to toss water over the side of a sinking boat to stop it from becoming submerged. Electromagnetism constantly leaks, building a charge, and if left unchecked creates a magnetic reaction (as we saw in Live Together, Die Alone). Thus the computer is in place to release this build-up at intervals to prevent the electromagnetism from becoming destructive. It just so happens that it takes approximately 108 minutes for the charge to build to sufficiently dangerous levels.
Curiously then, this description here paints a picture of The Swan as being purely designed around the principle of ensuring that the electromagnetism gets vented. Yet given the dome the computer is situated in, for one thing, it would seem apparent The Swan was intended for other purposes. Whether Dharma ever got the chance to use The Swan for these original intentions before the electromagnetism problem is, at present, impossible to know, but the important point is that The Swan was originally intended for alternative use. 'The incident' wrecked their plans.
But it is here that Dharma, for me, reveal their perverse scientific nature. Now stuck with having to vent electromagnetism every 108 minutes by computer, an obvious solution would be automation. By that I mean the computer would be designed to vent electromagnetism at 108-minute intervals by itself. It would have to be monitored, the same way CCTV requires security guards to watch the monitors, but automation would be the most effective system, right?
Well, perhaps no.
It should be noted that it’s not entirely ridiculous to ensure that there is always a person pushing the button rather than trusting on a computer that could fail. (A computer can’t turn a Fail Safe!) If the consequences of not venting the electromagnetism are truly cataclysmic (end of the world does seem a tad strong but for all we know, if the Island is crucial to the very fabric of the universe, then it being sucked into an electromagnetic vortex might very well mean utter world devastation) the importance of ensuring that button does get pushed is paramount.
Yet what a waste! Having built this facility perhaps Dharma could not bear with the sheer redundancy and salvaged what they could. Maybe they saw an opportunity to conduct another experiment. The Swan Station is re-fitted to be a livable habitat, with ‘modern’ furnishings to facilitate its function as a sustainable environment. Kitchen, exercise equipment, music and artificial daylight. Two unwitting Dharma guinea pigs are brought in, told to enter the 4 8 15 16 23 42 code every 108 minutes for three months until their relief appears. Out of ‘the incident’ Dharma created and conducted psychological research in the vein of Skinner and Milgram.
It’s worth taking a moment to convey the experiments of Skinner and Milgram. Milgram, firstly, was famous for his behaviour study. In brief, people (T, above) were lead to believe they were watching a psychological experiment. They watched a subject (L, above) try to perform a psychic test, and every the time the subject got a guess wrong they received an electric shock, administered by the person watching who, unwittingly, was the true subject of the experiment .The electric shock dial went up to apparently fatal levels (in truth no harm was being done) and yet if the participant felt concerned they were simply told to continue with the experiment as instructed by the experimenter (E, above). Chillingly, many people continued with this action to deliver shocks that would, if real, had killed the subject. As such, the power of conformity was highlighted – a person will do acts they wouldn’t otherwise do so long as a higher authority instructs them to do so.
B F Skinner was famous for his experiments on rats in his ‘Skinner Box’. In short, a rat was placed in a box where it could push a lever that would yield a grain of corn for it to eat. At first this lever would always deliver corn, and so the rat came to understand the mechanism: push lever, get food. Then the mechanism was changed so that every time the rat pushed the lever it might only produce corn every other time, or randomly. In different tests, the rat might receive an electric shock upon occasion of pressing the lever. No matter, though, the rat consistently pressed the lever to get the reward – regardless of effort or pain. This kind of behaviour conditioning can be easily-likened to, say, a gambler at a fruit machine constantly inserting coins to win, but really it applies to any human act of repeated effort to achieve a reward.
Reading each of those paragraphs, the relevancies to The Swan and the act of pushing the button feel highly applicable. The Milgram experiment, also, feels like something that has close relations to The Pearl (but that’s one for a later essay). But the idea of subjects willing to do things they wouldn’t usually do because instructed by a higher authority – in this case Dharma – and able to be conditioned to perform acts they wouldn’t otherwise do for an apparent reward – in this case the threat of catastrophe should the button not get pushed – lends itself to events in The Swan tantalizingly aptly.
The temptation to assume a scientific experiment was taking place in The Swan because of its close relations with other scientific experiments is great, but in my opinion is wrong. Despite whatever original intentions The Swan had, its purpose was ultimately shaped to be there to vent electromagnetism. Remember that: The Swan's original purpose was never utilised. And since Dharma figured automation was too risky, they needed people there to push the button. Dharma, using their psychological understanding, figured the most reliable methods of ensuring this got done was by using existing experiments (Milgram, Skinner) and their proven results, and adapting them to achieve their goal.
So rather than trust some Dharma employees in to do work in The Swan pushing a button (when Dharma workers, evidently, weren’t entirely trustworthy to be responsible). . .
. . . they got in recruits, delivered them the scary Orientation film about the importance of pushing the button, and left them there for a few months to continue the work required. They did, of course, keep an eye on them over in The Pearl to check that nothing was to go very wrong. Since The Swan managed to remain over the decades on the Island we have to conclude that Dharma’s scheme worked! Consider the beeping alarm and the scary sound of the generator and the red and black hieroglyphics that emerge when the timer counts down. . .
. . . and the ‘test situation’ becomes more compelling. Put yourself in a Dharma recruits jumpsuit and shoes: Enter the code, don’t enter the code? What would you do? If you think you wouldn’t do it, consider that many people believe completely they would not administer fatal electric shocks to a person just because someone else told them to – yet Milgram’s experiment proves otherwise. You'll do what you're told to do so long as you're told to do it convincingly and given enough incentive.
So at the beginning of the piece I stated that The Swan was the most complex and confounding of Dharma Stations. But, if we distil down the layers of illusion and apparent absurdity, it becomes rather simple. It’s an elaborate system of psychological control to ensure a button gets pushed to vent electromagnetism. Beware distractions. Keep it simple and it works well. But the last point is the spanner in the works: Why use the 4 8 15 16 23 42 code?
I believe this very matter drives into the question of fate versus coincidence on Lost. As most Lost fanatics know, the 4 8 15 16 23 42 numbers are alluded to being the ‘Valenzetti Equation’, which is a doomsday equation Dharma, on some level, studied and tried to resolve. Now why would that same equation be entered into the computer? Well, why was that same equation stenciled onto the side of the Swan Station’s hatch?
As we saw in Season 5, this was purely a coincidental thing (or was it fate!?). The 4815162342 code was simply the next number in sequence for the hatch numberings. That it turned out to be the very same series of numbers of a profound equation does, like I said, suggest the matter of fate versus coincidence for you to question for yourself. My conclusion about why those same numbers became the code entered into the computer is drawn into two possibilities.
First idea is that the computer and the code required were brought about in a similar coincidental manner as the hatch stenciling. The computer was built, a code was required, and Dharma just consulted their records and the number they had applied to that particular Station.
Second idea is that, by the time the computer was built, studies of the number had escalated. Dharma had begun transmitting the code over the Island on the ‘beacon frequency’, and so considered it meaningful enough to use as the computer code (perhaps as a means of emphasizing the sense of importance around pushing the button). At least it would be a number they were certain to remember!
And so concludes my discussion of The Swan Station. It’s a somewhat reductive view, taking all of the intriguing elements and simplifying them to basic and near-boring levels, but it is, for me, the most satisfying answer to this complex and confounding Dharma Station. Like a swan, the most elegant and effortless notions best apply.