APIs Reduce Everything To A Transaction

My partner in crime Audrey Watters crafted a phrase that I use regularly, that “APIs reduce everything to a transaction”. She first said it jokingly a few years back, but is something I regularly repeat, and think about regularly, as I feel it profoundly describes the world I study. I like the phrase because of its dual meaning to me. If I say it with a straight face, in different company, I will get different responses. Some will be positive, and others will be negative. Which I think represents the world of APIs in a way that show how APIs are neither good, bad, or neutral.

If you are an API believer, when I describe how APIs reduce everything to a transaction, you probably see this as a positive. You are enabling something. You are distilling down aspects of our personal and business worlds down into a small enough representation, so that it can be transmitted via an API. Enabling payments, messages, likes, shares, and other aspects of our digital economy. Your work as an API believer is all about reducing things down to a transaction, so that you can make people’s lives better, and enable some kind of functionality that will deliver value online, and via our mobile phones. API transactions are enablers, and by using APIs, you are working to make the world a better place.

If you aren’t an API believer, when I describe how APIs reduce everything to a transaction, you are probably troubled, and left asking why I would want to do this. Not everything can or should be distilled down into a single transaction. Shifting something to be a transaction opens it up for being bought and sold. This is the nature of transactions. Even if you are delivering value to end-users by reducing a piece of their world to a transaction, now that it is a transaction, it is vulnerable to other market forces. It is these unintended consequences, and side effects of technology that many of us geeks do not anticipate, but market forces see as an opportunity, and benefit greatly from mindless technologists like us doing the hard work to transform the world into transactions that they can get their greedy little hands on.

Our desire to purchase a product is reduced to a transaction. Nothing bad here, right? Our conversations, images we take, videos we watch, and our location becomes a transaction. Getting a little scarier. Then our healthcare, education, and personal thoughts are turned into transactions. They are being bought and sold online, and via our mobile phones. What we buy, photos of our children, health records, and our most personal thoughts are all being reduced to a transaction so they can be transmitted via web and mobile applications. Secondarily, because it has been reduced to a transaction, it can be bought and sold on data markets, and become a transaction in the surveillance economy. Fulfilling the darker side of what we know as reducing everything to a transaction.

This is one of the reasons I’m fascinated with APIs. My technologist brain is attracted to the process of reducing things to a transaction, so they can be transmitted via APIs for use in web, mobile, and device applications. I’m obsessed with reducing everything to a transaction. Along this journey I’m also fascinated by our collective lack of awareness regarding how these transactions can be used for harm. I’m intrigued by our inability to think through this as technologists, and even become annoyed when it is pointed out. I’m fascinated by our lack of accountability as technologists when the transactions we are responsible for are used to harm people, exploit individuals, and are bought and sold on the open market like we are cattle. We seem unable to stop or slow what we have set in motion, and must keep reducing everything to a transaction at all cost.

Why do we need photos of our children to be transactions? Why do we need our DNA to be transactions? Why do we need every moment, every thought, every impulse in our day to be a digital transaction? Once anything is reduced to a transaction in our world, why do we then feel compelled to measure it? The steps we take? The calories we consume? The hours we sleep? These are all aspects of our lives that have been reduced to transactions. Why? For our benefit? To improve our life? Or is it just so that someone can sell us something, or even worse, just sell this little piece of us. This is why everything is being reduced to a transaction. The reasoning behind is always about making our lives better, and improving the quality of our daily life, but the real reason is always about distilling down a piece of who we are into something that can be bought and sold–transacted.