Subways, Skyscrapers, and Servers

I’ve been reading about Frank Sprague who contributed to the development of the electric motor, electric railways, and electric elevators, and his impact on cities. While he was perfecting the electric motors usage to power early subway systems, he was simultaneously applying the electric motor to elevator systems in tall buildings. Sprague literally laid the foundation for our modern cities reaching for the skies by allowing people to live in the suburbs and ride the subway to work each day, but also work in increasingly taller buildings because they could take the elevator to the top. I am left with images of millions of humans moving in, up, down, and out of cities each day, and how this is playing out when the digital landscape is introduced.

I can’t help but see the servers behind the web as part of this same set of mechanisms propelling us through space, and now cyberspace. When I look at the API infrastructure that drives our world through this Sprague-ian lens, I can’t help but see little cybernetic belts and gears moving us through cyberspace, and increasingly in the physical space we occupy. I’ve long associated the subway and public transit with API infrastructure, but the more I read about and experience NYC transit, the more parallels I am seeing. I see Sprague motors taking me from my home to the street, and from the street where I live to the street where I work, and then up to my office. As I make this journey I use my API-powered apps to literally navigate and access transit, but also find myself observing people on their mobile devices as well.

When I close my eyes and visualize our relationship with servers in the same way I do with subways and skyscrapers I see a fusion between industrial age factories with belts connecting machines and Neo unplugging himself and getting a look at the energy grid in the Matrix. I see the digital belts and gears that connect our mobile devices, automobiles, televisions, and daily experiences and propel us through the physical and digital worlds. Sometimes I feel cursed seeing this landscape, where other times I feel like I am blessed. I close my eyes and I see systems all around us. Like with subways and skyscrapers we are being moved around where we are needed or want to be, but in this new cybernetic realm we can move in many directions at once, changing our relationship with ourselves and the world around us in new ways we don’t fully understand.

It is tough to quantify the role that electric motors have played in shaping the world around us, but how we move through it. When you see APIs as little virtual electric motors that move our digital bits, you begin to see overlaps between these complex systems we’ve set in motion around the world. APIs are just state machines, which act as little belts, gears, and motors that power our digital experience. They are what allow me to navigate my journey to work via Google Maps, and swipe my phone as I enter the subway at 59th Street and Columbus Circle. It is these little API belts, gears, and motors that literally help me make my way to work each day, while also having a conversation with my wife via SMS, reading the news via my NYTimes app, and catching up on what is going on across my social networks. This API system moves me in and out of midtown each day, and gets me back home, just as Sprague’s electric motors contributed to me moving on the subway and in elevators at home and work.

It isn’t just the direct ways in which we propel ourselves through the world that interests me, it is the new ways in which we are propelled in different directions using web APIs. I spend my days walking around the city observing food delivery riders being told where to go via their API applications, and snow shovelers taking pictures of sidewalks when they are done clearing the snow. I am fascinated how APIs are moving us to and from work whether in the physical or digital world. I am fascinated by understanding which of these API belts, gears, and motors have standard “run of the mill” control over our day where we are in control, as well as where things get a little more exploitative and shift our relationship with the world in darker ways. Like the automobiles relationships with public transit and cities, I think we won’t live up to the full potential of API electric motors in benefitting the human race, and we’ll be forced to make our way through a sprawling maze of digital waste lands to make ends meet moving forward.