Rabea Kleymann: Calling APIs Diffractively: Imagining Relational Readings of Code
Lecture as part of the panel Envisioning Coded Futures: Algorithmically shaped Presents and Futures of Human-Machine-Relationships at the EASST 2022 conference: Politics of technoscientific futures, 6–9 July 2022
Although sociotechnical systems based on code shape our datafied society, providing access to functionalities and data is still challenging. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are therefore gaining more and more relevance. APIs structure not only interactions between software applications, but also mediate between humans and computer systems, for example, in form of information retrievals. Notably, the documentation of APIs give insights into the entanglements of data capturing, algorithmic procedures and other infrastructural parameters. But from a methodological perspective, one issue seems to be how can we address such types of access. In this submission, I argue that diversifying the methods used to inspect code and data could be one way to engage with sociotechnical systems, e.g., APIs. While Sheila Jasanoff presents six methodological pointers to examine sociotechnical imaginaries, I propose Karen Barad’s diffractive reading as a further method.
In Barad’s approach called agential realism, she outlines the method of diffractive reading. Suggesting a radical relationality that undermines the distinction between humans and machines at first place, diffractive reading conceives epistemic objects as inference patterns. The thesis of this submission is that diffractive reading is a highly adaptable processual method for studying APIs. Software, algorithms and data settings are not only made legible and negotiable through the relations they produce. Rather, diffractive reading allows to reimagine accountabilities of boundary-drawing, for example, the contextual integrity of coded systems. What becomes meaningful for whom or what in using for example this standard library or that algorithm, and what is in- or excluded? What framework need to be mobilized to deliver certain data? Presenting diffractive readings of REST-based Web APIs from cultural institutions, I explore scopes and limitations of Barad’s method in practice. Accordingly, I read the documentation of different GLAM APIs as socio-mattering configurations, and compare queries and responses of APIs calls through code.
The literary scholar Rabea Kleymann is a research associate with the project Diffractive Epistemics: Cultures of Knowledge in the Digital Humanities.