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Remembering That APIs Are Used To Reduce Everything Down To A Transaction

This is our regular reminder that APIs are not good, nor bad, nor neutral. They are simply a tool in our technological toolbox, and something that is often used for very dark reasons, and occasionally for good. One of the most dangerous things I’ve found about APIs is just the general thought process that goes along with them, regarding how all roads lead to reducing, and distilling things down to a single transaction. APIs, REST, microservices, and other design patterns are all about taking something from our physical world, and redefining it as something that can be transmitted back and forth using the low cost request and response infrastructure of the web.

No matter what you are designing your API for, your mission is to reduce everything to a simple transaction that can be exchanged between your server, and any other system, web, mobile, device, or network application. This digital resource could be a photo of your kids, a message to your mother, the balance of your bank account, your personal thoughts going into your notebook, the latest song you listened to, your DNA, your test results for cancer, or any other piece of relevant data, content, media, object, or other resource that is being sent or received online. APIs are all about reducing all of our meaningful digital bits to the smallest possible transaction, and then daisy chaining them together to produce some desired set of results.

This API-ification of everything can be a good thing. It can make our lives better, but one of the negative side effects of this reducing of everything to a transaction, is that now that transaction can be bought and sold. The digitization of everything in our lives is rarely ever about making our lives better and whatever the reasons we are told up front, and almost always are about reducing that little piece of our lives to a transaction that can be quantified, have a value place on it, and then sold individually, or in bulk with millions of other transactions. As consumers of a digital reality, we rarely see the reasons why something around us are being digitized, and API-ified so that it can transacted online, resulting in something we’ve heard a lot–that we are the product.

It’s easy to believe in the potential of APIs. It is easy to get caught up in the reducing of everyday things down to transactions. It takes discipline, and the ability to stop and consider the bigger picture on a regular basis to avoid being stuck in the strong under currents of the API economy. Making sure we are regularly asking ourselves if we want this piece of our reality digitized and reduced to a transaction, and what the potential negative consequences of this element of our existence being a transaction. Thinking a little more deeply about how we’d feel if someone was buying and selling the digital bits of our life, and are we only ok with this as long as it is someone else’s bits and bytes–demonstrating that APIs are winning, and humanity is losing in this game we’ve developed online.