Keeping up with Lost

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site

All the hullabaloo about the news from Washington yesterday has been a distraction from the real event of the week: the fact that S05E01 of "Lost" is airing tonight, which means we are all about to be treated to another few months of utterly baffling prime time television. Though I've been known to argue in public for the growing complexity of today's popular culture, I've long since given up on trying to figure out what is actually happening on "Lost," and prefer to just sit back and let the byzantine plot twists and spatial-temporal jumps wash over me. But like many fans of the show, I suspect, I've always been fascinated by the question of exactly how much of "Lost"'s web the producers and writers of the show have planned out, and how much they're making up as they go along.

So it was delightful to read in the Times this weekend this profile of "Lost"'s script co-ordinator, Gregg Nations, who has apparently been maintaining a master document of all the various events and connections over the show's four year run. This line caught my eye:

Had he a background in computer science, Mr. Nations now says, he might have approached the "Lost" project differently. "The best thing would have been to create a database where everything's linked, and if we're talking about Jack and what was established in his first flashback episode, you could click on something that takes you there," he said. But as an accountant, he was more inclined just to make notes in a ledger. "I've just created these Word documents, and I just write everything down."

I think this captures exactly what makes these ultra-complex shows ("The Wire" being the other canonical, non-sci-fi example) so different from what has come before them on television: if you're trying to synthesize the entire history of the show, the proper form for conveying all that information is not a linear narrative. It's a relational database.