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Dian Fay
Dian Fay

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Plex: A Life

A little while back I got my hands on a copy of Software Development and Reality Construction, the output of a conference held in Berlin in 1988. Among a variety of other more or less philosophical treatments of the theory and practice of software development, Don Knuth analyzes errors he made in his work on TeX; Kristen "SIMULA" Nygaard reviews his collaboration with labor unions to ensure that software meant to coordinate and control work does not wind up controlling the workers as well, a rather grim read in the era of Uber and Amazon; Heinz Klein and Kalle Lyytinen embark on a discussion of data modeling as production rather than as interpretation or hermeneutics. In all, it's some of the most insightful writing about programming and software engineering I've encountered.

This isn't about those contributions.

There's an entry fairly early on from one Douglas T. Ross, called "From Scientific Practice to Epistemological Discovery". Ross, who died in 2007, was a computer scientist and engineer most remembered today for the influential APT machine tools programming language and for coining the term "computer-aided design".

This isn't about the things Doug Ross is remembered for.

Doug Ross had a system. The system began its public life as an early software engineering methodology in the Cambrian explosion of such methodologies enabled by the spread of high-level programming languages in the 60s and 70s. The system went by a few names. Ross's company, SofTech Inc., called it the Structured Analysis and Design Technique or SADT. The US Air Force, never wont to use merely one acronym where two will do, called it IDEF0: ICAM (Integrated Computer Aided Manufacturing) DEFinition for function modeling.

To Doug Ross, the system was Plex. And Plex was everything. When the Department of Defense cut the Structured Analysis data modeling approach from IDEF0 in favor of a simpler methodology to be developed by SofTech subcontracters and named IDEF1, Ross decried the decision as destroying the "mathematical elegance and symmetric completeness of SADT [...] IDEF0 became merely the best of a competing zoo of other software development CASE tools, none of which were scientifically founded". He saw his career, and, indeed, his life, as drawing him inevitably toward the discovery and promulgation of his "philosophy of problem-solving", and furthering Plex's development became more and more important to him as time went on. In the mid-80s, he stopped drawing a salary at SofTech and went back to MIT, lecturing part-time on electrical engineering in order to focus more of his efforts on Plex.

But even MIT was, in Ross's own words, "not yet ready for [Structured Analysis] much less Plex". A graduate seminar on Plex itself was briefly offered in 1984, but was canceled due to lack of student interest. In "From Scientific Practice" Ross bemoans his inability to gain traction for Plex, writing of feeling "an intolerable burden of responsibility to still be the only person in the world (to my knowledge) pursuing it". His only recourse was to turn inward and "generate book after book on Plex in my office at home, in order that Plex will be ready when the world is ready for it!"

At this point, Doug Ross might be sounding a little bit like a crank. Let me be clear: Douglas T. Ross, computer science pioneer, was absolutely a crank of the first water. This is just as absolutely to his credit; any fool can make it from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it takes real talent to go in the other direction. And Plex is sublime, if in its own dry, academic way. Ross is not the celestial paranoiac Francis E. Dec, ranting and raving about the Worldwide Deadly Gangster Communist Computer God and lunar brain storage depots; nor is Plex the gonzo experience of Nature's Harmonic Simultaneous 4-Day Time Cube. That said, Ross never devolves into the racist vituperations Dec and Time Cube's Gene Ray were sometimes given to, either. So it goes.

Plex itself is a sprawling, incoherent metaphysics built, according to Ross, on the foundation of a single pun (or, more properly, double entendre): "nothing can be left out". Thus inspired, Ross embarks upon the classic Cartesian thought experiment. But where Descartes discards every proposition except the cogito ("I think, therefore I am"), Ross's buck stops at "nothing doesn't exist".

Or, in Ross's own framing:

Nothing doesn't exist. That is the First Definition of Plex -- a scientific philosophy whose aim is understanding our understanding of the nature of nature. Plex does not attempt to understand nature itself, but only our understanding of it. We are included in nature as we do "our understanding", both scientific and informal, so we must understand ourselves as well -- not just what we think we are, but as we really are, as integral, natural beings of nature. How one "understand"s and even who "we" are as we do "our understanding" necessarily is left completely open, for all that must arise naturally from the very nature of nature.

All emphasis -- all of it, I assure you -- original. Ross's dedication to bold and italic text wavers from work to work and page to page, but on balance "From Scientific Practice to Epistemological Discovery" is in fine form. Early entries he refers to in his "thousands of C-pages" (that is, "chronological working pages", all of which may or may not have been lost) and lecture notes he prepared in 1985 sometimes switch between up to eight colors every few words. The lecture notes are of particular interest compared to the other extant materials, comprising a "study of an SADT Data Model which expresses all aspects of any object which obeys laws of physical cause and effect" delivered as a dialogue between Ross and a genie reminiscent of Gödel, Escher, Bach.

Having arrived at the First Definition, Ross next attempts to deduce everything else from it, claiming that Plex need make no assumptions. "Nothing doesn't exist" leads, expanded this way and that, to "Only that which is known by definition is known -- by definition", as, "without a definition for something, we only can know it as Nothing". Within the space of a few paragraphs, he's slammed what appears to be his own misinterpretation of Stephen Hawking and (unknowingly?) reinvented Spinoza's pantheism, on the grounds that "Nothing isn't ; Plex is what Nothing isn't". And for what it's worth, this is all still in the first two pages of "From Scientific Practice".

In another instance, Plex guides Ross to enlightenment regarding questions of information theory. It turns out that a single bit actually requires 3/2 binary digits for encoding, "because the value of the half-bit is 3/4 !!!".

-- which ultimately results from the fact that in actuality, when you don't have something, it is not the case that you have it but it is Nothing -- it is that you don't have it; whereas when you do have something, that is because you don't have what it isn't!

At a closer reading, this isn't necessarily the gibberish it might seem at first blush. Plex's foundation in "Nothing" makes zero the default state. But one is only understandable when there's an understood meaning for one. The elaboration about nothings and somethings makes it seem like Ross is counting this other one -- that is, half a bit -- towards the cost of encoding any other bit. In semiotic terms, this is the interpretant or subjective value Charles Sanders Peirce sees implicit in signification. But if Ross ever investigated the ways logicians and linguists had already been exploring this territory, there's no indication that he attached any significance (as it were) to their work. And while including the interpretant for half the possible values may yield the same final figure, it does not account for the 3/4 half-bit; so in the face of storage hardware design as practiced, Ross's insistence on 3/2 seems more mystical than scientific.

I have no idea how au courant Ross was with the humanities in general, but it seems likely that the answer is "not very". He was, of course, quite well-versed in math and engineering. Even deep in the mire of Plex, one can find him struggling to accommodate the realization that he was, in essence, defining formal systems backwards (he settles this with the ingenious maneuver of declaring the distinction akin to chirality), but the only philosopher he mentions is Plato. His efforts at deductive logic too seem thoroughly warped, as evinced by his "proof that every point is the whole world". For reference, an object's "identity" is tautologically defined as above: the set of "that" which "this" isn't.

  I n = 1: A world of one point is the whole world.
 II Assume the theorem is true for (n - 1) points. (n > 1),
     i.e., for any collection of (n - 1) points, every point is the whole world.
     [ed: remember, Plex needs no assumptions, let alone "assume the theorem is true"]
III To prove the theorem for n points given its truth for (n - 1) points
     (n > 1)
     (a) The identity of any one point, p, in the collection is a collection of (n -
         1) points, each of which is the whole world, by II.
     (b) The identity of any other point, q, i.e., a point of the identity of p, is
         a collection of (n - 1) points, each of which is the whole world, by II.
     (c) The identity of p and the identity of q are identical except that where
         the identity of p has q the identity of q has p. In any case p is the
         whole world by (b) and q is the whole world by (a).
     (d) Hence both p and q are the whole world, as are all the other points (if
         any) in their respective identities (and shared between them).
     (e) Hence all n points are the whole world.
 IV For n = 2, I is used (via II) in IIIa and IIIb, q.e.d.
  V Q.E.D. by natural induction.

As mentioned, Ross generated a wealth of C-pages, lecture notes, and other writings on Plex, but except for a small fraction apparently hosted on his last MIT faculty/program page, I have no idea where most of this collection ended up. If you're interested in reading further in Ross's own words, the best places to start are probably "From Scientific Practice to Epistemological Discovery" in Software Development and Reality Construction or The Plex Tract.


Doug Ross himself remains a rather cryptic figure. There's some biographical information out there, but after his birth to missionary parents in what's now Guangdong and childhood homecoming to the Finger Lakes region of New York it mostly concerns where, when, with whom, and on what he was working. In his writings he comes off somewhat full of himself, as tends to be the case with esoteric philosophers and visionaries for whom the world is not yet and will never be ready. But when Ross talks about the necessary perfection, or perfect necessity, of his marriage to his wife Pat, herself a human computer at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, it's still a little bit charming. And when he writes, with complete seriousness, that "being a pioneer came naturally" to him, I can't exactly say otherwise.

I wonder what it was like in that conference hall in 1988. I don't know whether the attendees or the organizers knew what they were in for when Ross got up to talk about this beautiful, all-consuming nonsense that was driving him to desperation. But sense isn't everything; and as a project of reality construction Plex is a monumental accomplishment. And the reality we ourselves have collectively constructed, in which points are points, a bit corresponds to a single binary digit, and genies obstinately refuse to appear no matter how we manipulate bottles, is the richer for its existence.

Top comments (4)

samosborn profile image
Sam Osborn

This is fantastic!
Really wild stuff, like you say: kinda Spinozan, in a haunting way. I had no idea this existed.

I wonder if one take away could be that Structured Analysis and binary based ontology are fundamentally imperfect seeds to grow a fully functional epistemology. That Ross's end of life obsession leading into frustration was an exercise in failing to model epistemic meaning with computer science. And yet, there is a powerful myth that it can be done; as we let software permeate all parts of our lives, we let it do the malformed work of epistemic meaning-making for us/around us. Ross's end of life may be a foreshadowing our collective experiment along the same road, where our Plex is the massively monocultured mobile information complex that creates a layer of slightly annoying paraverse in and around the dirty and substantial world we live in. At some point I think we will admit the same thing: the "intolerable burden of responsibility" of maintaining a epistemology made out of Structured Analysis, made out of bits, will have us all tapping out.

I'm also drawn to what may be a poetic misinterpretation of his thesis. If rule #1 is "Nothing doesn't exist", we've got a fun possible anti-thesis of "Everything does exist" which is unhelpful in a blood-to-the-toes, Zen koan, sort of way. Which is kind of what he's saying in "Meaning of any word"?

In summary, this feels, importantly, like that mode of wet-eyed techno-optimism that swept through the second-half of the 20th century. Where the now accessible tools of computer science and network thinking were still being dimensioned, and seemed initially limitless in their epistemic potential. I think Ross's frustration is a good lesson. We can't do worlding work with computer science alone.

dmfay profile image
Dian Fay • Edited

"There" and "not there" are pretty compelling as conceptual building blocks go, but it's true, strict dichotomies are.... well, strict dichotomies, with all that entails. They're useful not despite but because they dramatically simplify modeling more complex systems. And under capitalism, applying that simplicity to social interactions and institutions is profitable, which I think is largely what's driving the computerization of the noosphere more than a general passivity. People don't like being tracked and profiled and marketed to online; people don't like getting jerked around by algorithms at work; a lot of people don't even really like social media, which is ostensibly there for fun and sharing. So much of this is merely tolerated at best (convenience helps), and meanwhile there's money to be made.

If there's a mythical epistemology at work, it's specifically targeted at those of us effecting that computerization: yes, you can solve any problem with ones and zeroes if you try hard enough, and the Free Market, praised be its name, will reward you for succeeding! And of course, even if you don't buy into it, you still have to eat.

samosborn profile image
Sam Osborn

Yes! The fact that that myth is targeting us effectors of computerization demands that we are responsible for labeling it, calling it out, and rejecting it. Like you say, the modes of oppression that come from this myth, and our loyalty to it, aren't enjoyed, though they are convenient.

I tend to think we can do better and still feed ourselves, and that looks like more computer scientists saying: "you know, software probably isn't the solution to this problem here". Which isn't to say software isn't incredibly helpful. We've got to get better at finding motivators outside of the Free Market, and we've got to practice using computers alongside some of those older human tools like politics, religion, and philosophy: true for everyone but especially the "computerizers".

hasone profile image

Let me shutdown -P now! I got exhausted!