Keeping A Window Open Into How Power Flows Within Algorithms Using APIs
29 Nov 2015
I just read The Pill versus the Bomb: What Digital Technologists Need to Know About Power, by Tom Steinberg (@steiny), and I'm reminded of the important role APIs will (hopefully) continue to play in helping provide a transparent window into some of the power structures being coded into the algorithms we are increasingly relying on in this digital world we are crafting.
In this century, we are seeing a huge shift in how power flows, and despite the rhetoric of some of the Silicon Valley believers, this power isn't always being democratized along the way. Much of the older power structures is just being re-inscribed into the algorithms that drive network switches, decide pricing when purchasing online, via our online banking, and virtually ever other aspect of our personal and business worlds.
APIs give us a window into how these algorithms work, providing access to 3rd party developers, government regulators, journalists, and many other essential actors across our society and economy. Don't get me wrong, APIs are no magic pill, or nuclear bomb, when it comes to making algorithmic power flows more transparent and equitable, but when they are done right, they can have a significant effect.
If APIs are a complete (or near complete) representation of the algorithms that are driving platforms, they can be used to better understand how decisions behind the algorithmic curtain are made, and exactly how power is flowing (or not) on web, mobile, and increasingly connected device platforms--API does not equal perfect transparency, but will help prevent all algorithms from being black boxes.
We may not fully understand Uber's business motivations, but through their API we can test our assumptions. We may not always trust Facebook's advertising algorithm, but using the API we can develop models for better understanding why they serve the ads they do. Drone operators may not always have the best intentions, but through mandatory device APIs, we can log flight times and locations. These are just a handful of examples that APIs can be used to map out digital power.
All of this is one of the main reasons that I do API Evangelist. I feel like we have a narrow window of opportunity to help ensure APIs act as this essential transparent layer for ALL API operations across industries. As the established power structures (eye of Sauron) turn their attention to the web, and increasingly APIs, their powers of transparency are becoming more diminished. It is up to us API Evangelists, to help make sure APIs stay publicly available to 3rd party developers, government, journalists, end users, and other key players--providing much needed transparency into how algorithms work, and how power is flowing on the web and mobile Internet.