APIs Dictating Reality In Our Physical World

I am thinking a lot about all the ways in which APIs don’t just define our online world, but also our physical world. On Saturday mornings I normally go for a walk in Central Park to chase squirrels (with my dog), then I take the subway up to 106th & Broadway to pick up bagels for the week. This morning I had the 8th email from Geico telling me I needed to take my 2021 Kia Telluride for a “photo inspection”. On a day where I normally wouldn’t let my online self dictate my physical self, Geico had told me my insurance would be canceled if I did not do what they said. It felt like an opportunity for me to not just satisfy my insurance requirements, but also tell a story about how our APIs can dictate reality in our physical worlds.

The eight emails I received from Geico this week were almost guaranteed to be sent using an email API service like SendGrid, and when I finally clicked on the 8th one this morning I was taken to my Geico application, where I could search for a location to take my car for a “photo inspection”. I typed in 1009 and a location on 10th Ave and 25th Street came. I had gotten my car out of the garage and drove up to 106th and Broadway to get my bagels, so now I was being commanded by an API request made to Geico to head downtown. I turned on public radio and listened to a program on Afropop artist Fela until I pulled up at the inspection station, rolled down my window, and told the young man standing out front of the auto service station that I was here for my “photo inspection”.

I did not get out of my car. The kid looked at his phone and then said to me, “roll up your window”. The kid then took a picture of the front of my car, and fiddled on his mobile phone for a bit. Then he walked around the back of my car and took a picture of the back, and fiddled on his mobile phone for a bit. Then he came up to my window, and I rolled it down. He asked for my insurance card–I held my card up (on my Geico Phone app) while he typed it into his mobile app. He looked at my dashboard and inside the car, and typed some more in his mobile device. After about 2-3 minutes of this he said I should get an email, and once I confirmed I received, we were “All Good!”. It took me about 3-4 swipes (API GET) on my Gmail mobile application before I saw the email from Gieco in my inbox. Indeed, I was all good.

I continued home, put the car in the garage, and went home to eat a bagel. As I was eating, I couldn’t help but sit and ponder the API calls that were made to send the email to me, assist me in finding a service location to drive my car to, guide my young service technician through the process of “photo inspecting” my vehicle, and then finally sending the email to me letting me know I had satisfied their requirements. I will have to craft an APIs.json that maps out the surface area of this API-driven engagement online, but also more importantly offline. It isn’t that I wouldn’t have used APIs on this early Saturday morning. I would have used it when swiping my mobile phone on the MTA traveling to and from the Upper West Side from my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. What got me t hinking was that a series of APIs called could be used by my insurance provider to direct me downtown on this fine morning, and guide this young man through a physical process they needed completed.

For me, it isn’t just this single event. I am taking a moment to pause and think about the API orchestration occurring here. However, I am really interested in the event at scale, across millions of people, and multiple insurance companies. I am fascinated by how insurance companies use APIs to command what we do in the physical world. I am interested in how we define these events, but also standardize and regulate this at scale across many aspects of our lives. This one event took control of about 2 hours of my life in the physical world. Luckily I was listening to Fela, and about the culture of Afropop in Nigeria, so it wasn’t a lost 2 hours, but it still was 2 hours I will never get back from our increasingly pushy Internet corporate overlords. The event was some sort of fraud requirement to get automobile insurance in New York, which I will need to get my vehicle registered in the state. I will have to do a little more research into the wider context of insurance industry regulation surrounding and preceding my thoughts around API-driven digital regulation. Like we are seeing play out with AI regulation right now, we have a lot of regulatory history and baggage to consider, before we’ll understand the best (or worst) way to regulate the API economy that has begun dictating our online world this century, but is also increasingly dictating reality in our physical world.