What I Mean When I Say That APIs Reduce Everything to a Transaction

My friend Allen Helton asked what I meant when I said, “APIs reduce everything to a transaction” on LinkedIn recently. He was curious whether I meant this conceptually or technically. To be honest, I mean both. I purposely leave it loosely defined, and wield it in many different ways. I do this simply to get people thinking about the nuance of digital transactions we often take for granted. I just want people to ask questions like Allen is doing, and pause from time to time to think about what a “transaction” means to us. I feel we’ve done quite a bit of thinking about what transactions mean in our physical world, but I think we have a huge amount of discussion ahead when it comes to what it means in a digital world.

The phrase, “APIs reduce everything to a transaction”, was coined by my lovely wife to describe what I do for a living, and is something that has morphed and evolved for me in many ways over the last decade. The image was crafted by a friend of mine Bryan Mathers as part of a creative design session–it is his superpower to have a conversation with you about who you are and what you do, and then provides you with a selection of hand-drawn images. The logos for API Evangelist, and this reduce everything to a transaction image were all part of the same conversation. I think about this phrase a lot. Too much. I know, I am weird. But I can’t help it. All I see around me each day are digital transactions powered by APIs, from getting on the subway, to messaging my wife when I am coming home-—in both of these situationsI am triggering API transactions.

I purposely leave the meaning behind this phrase obfuscated. I want you to do the thinking. Not me. However, I love thinking about it, so I am going to take a fresh stab at once again expressing and probably evolving what I mean when I say that APIs reduce everything to a transaction. To help ground my answer in reality, let’s take a look at the dictionary definition of a transaction:

  • an instance of buying or selling something; a business deal.
  • the action of conducting business.
  • an exchange or interaction between people.
  • published reports of proceedings at the meetings of a learned society.
  • an input message to a computer system that must be dealt with as a single unit of work.

I’d say that list of definitions show the evolution from physical to digital transactions, with the last one landing closest to the neutral way in which most technologists see transactions. I’d say that a mix of layers get at the bureaucracy, business, technical, and human dimensions are what I am hopeful to illuminate via my storytelling around API transactions. I am looking to grab hold of any business or technical transaction flying around us each day and reveal the humanity lodged in the digital bits that lay just beneath this web of transactions that we depend on each day.

I love the intersection and Venn diagram of a transaction. Is it about buying or selling? Is it about input messages into a computer system? Is it something between two people? Or is it something larger, and collectively a societal or market concept. D) All the above. I love the democratization that web APIs have brought to transactions that were previously out of my reach. A global marketplace with Amazon. A global nervous system with Twitter. Global infrastructure with Amazon Web Services. Global mapping infrastructure with Google Maps. Global messaging systems with Twilio. And global payments with Stripe. In 2010, APIs were putting more types of transactions within my reach than ever before. APIs are amazing. I still believe this. Even though I’ve seen evidence to the contrary over the years.

After reading a Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude Shannon, I was captivated by his belief that “the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. The system must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design.” This belief is what has made the web possible, and in turn web APIs possible. However, I feel that the combination of what this belief set in motion via the web combined with modern capitalism has resulted in a rather dangerous form of potential abuse when it comes to digital transactions.

Us technologists see the good in digital transactions, much like Shannon did. Ultimately he saw the same darker side I am also seeing, but it was too late, the cat was out of the bag. I feel the same way with APIs. APIs have a tremendous ability to enable new types of digital resources that we never imagined before, which deliver powerful new digital capabilities that can be put into almost anyone’s hands, and bring entirely new digital experiences that benefit can society. To be able to turn my location, and translate my need to get to another destination into a rideshare transaction opens up entirely new business deals, new ways of conducting business-—all due to an input message into a computer system. I can translate my late night hunger for cookies into a transaction that restaurants and delivery people will compete over to fulfill. APIs enable new experiences Shannon never imagined, but within markets, transactions always have the potential to change and morph as we’ve witnessed with Uber and other ridesharing or delivery services which are powered by APIs.

I guess my mission is to get us thinking deeply about transactions so that we can have a healthy conversation about what is good and bad. APIs enable all my needs throughout the day to be met through payment, messaging, image, video, and other transactions via my mobile devices and the web. Allowing companies to make money enabling those transactions is acceptable. However, I feel we aren’t staying true to Shannon’s vision of what communication, the fundamental building block of system to system “communication” should be about. I am not just talking just about net neutrality and earlier discussions about this. I am talking about general data protection, privacy, and other human aspects of this. I disagree with Shannon, in that not all communication in a digital world is created equal. My monthly subscription with AT&T for SMS is a transaction. My SMS to my wife, daughter, and friends are not. Or are they? What is our definition of a transaction? Is the message a transaction? Are the senders and receivers on a specific date and time a transaction? Which of the definitions above govern this body of transactions available around me talking with people.

I am worried about all of my individual digital transactions facilitated by APIs each day. I am thankful they exist and are possible. I am worried about them being secure and private. However, I am also worried about them being all rolled up into other products being sold, or derivatives of products. Like my mortgage in 2008. Bought and sold over and over, until it took me five years to clear from my credit report. I don’t want to just be defined by digital transactions, but I want them to define me in all the ways that matter to me the most. I literally have made millions of dollars reducing everyday objects and activities into literal technical transactions. As my wife said—-it is what I do. But, like William Cody felt after helping eliminate buffalo from the United States plains to provide leather belts to the industrialized factories in the east, I am feeling a little guilty for what I have done and keep doing. I believe in the good that API can do, but when used as the lifeblood of a capitalist economy, providing the extractive “belts for the factories” mining digital resources, capabilities, and experiences from our daily lives–I begin to worry for my soul.

Like William Cody I have a flair for the dramatic. It’s how I keep things down here in the underbelly of the digital world we’ve created. Otherwise I lose interest. When it comes to what I mean when it comes to APIs reducing us to a transaction, I am challenging us to define what makes us human as much as I am asking for us to define what is a transaction. I want us to think about everything we are reducing to a digital transaction today. I want us to be equipped to have a conversation about what we should and should not turn into a transaction. I think we should be equipped to define what is a transaction, and what is business, what is technical, and what is about people. Then I want us to define what we don’t want to be a transaction. There are just some things that shouldn’t be transacted, unless it is purely a consensual exchange or interaction between people without technical or business constraints imposed. What percentage of the digital tractions we make each day reflect what is acceptable when it comes to the business, technology, and people of doing APIs.