In the age of Facebook and Netflix, the word “algorithm” has become so ubiquitous, and its connotation so amorphous, that it’s verging on jargon—maybe even cliché. The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost has half-seriously suggested that readers replace the word “algorithm” with “God” and see if the meaning changes. My former Slate colleague Jacob Brogan once penned an 1,800-word explainer unpacking the term.
So it was amusing and somewhat refreshing on Wednesday when an 81-year-old member of the British House of Lords interrupted a high-flown discussion of algorithmic standards and accountability to ask, perhaps a bit cheekily, exactly what an algorithm is.
One could easily imagine such a question flummoxing a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, let alone the stuffed shirts who compose one of the world’s more antiquated pseudo-legislative bodies. The Guardian’s Alex Hern captured Lord Geddes’ question for posterity:
But Lord Ashton of Hyde was not flummoxed. On the contrary, Geddes’ fellow conservative peer and the undersecretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport mounted a definition that rivals dictionary entries for clarity and succinctness—wrapped up in a historical allusion that he knew his classically educated interlocutor would understand. Hern again:
One could possibly quibble that this doesn’t quite capture the term’s contemporary popular usage as a stand-in for software programs that issue rankings, recommendations, or decisions, as in “the YouTube algorithm.” But that’s also a virtue of Ashton’s definition: It skirts the morass over contemporary usage by hewing to the word’s original meaning, and disarms the questioner with its simplicity.
The very best definitions are not only accurate and concise, but also phrased in a way that meets the questioner on her or his own ground. (By contrast, Amazon Alexa’s definitions of simple terms are often utterly useless, because they require a level of knowledge that no one asking for that definition could be expected to have.) By that definition of, er, a good definition, Ashton’s was bang-on. Or, as one reply to Hern’s tweets put it: