The age of the Algorithm is long gone

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

I date the age of the Algorithm from roughly the 1960s to the late 1980s.

During the age of the Algorithms, developers spent a lot of time figuring out the best algorithm to use and writing code to implement algorithms.

Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP) was the book that everybody consulted to find an algorithm to solve their current problem (wafer thin paper, containing tiny handwritten corrections and updates, was glued into the library copies of TAOCP held by my undergraduate university; updates to Knuth was news).

Two developments caused the decline of the age of the Algorithm (and the rise of the age of the Ecosystem and the age of the Platform; topics for future posts).

  • The rise of Open Source (it was not called this for a while), meant it became less and less necessary to spend lots of time dealing with algorithms; an implementation of something that was good enough, was available. TAOCP is something that developers suggest other people read, while they search for a package that does something close enough to what they want.
  • Software systems kept getting larger, driving down the percentage of time developers spent working on algorithms (the bulk of the code in commercially viable systems deals with error handling and the user interface). Algorithms are still essential (like the bolts holding a bridge together), but don’t take up a lot of developer time.

Algorithms are still being invented and some developers spend most of their working with algorithms, but peak Algorithm is long gone.

Perhaps academic researchers in software engineering would do more relevant work if they did not spend so much time studying algorithms. But, as several researchers have told me, algorithms is what people in their own and other departments think computing related research is all about. They remain shackled to the past.