Musings on #BigData, #facerecognition and #parenting:

TLDR: We’re happy, freshly baked parents, but will not be posting pictures of our daughter’s face on social media, to protect her privacy and not feed the data machine even more. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Yesterday I posted a picture of Rianna, Mary.Anne and me in solidarity with the Iranian women-led freedom struggle that erupted after #MahsaAmini’s arrest and death at the hands of Iranian religious police. It also happened to be the first picture we uploaded to Facebook featuring our recently born daughter – though without her face visible.

For some of you, this may have been a relief! After all, we announced the pregnancy, but then never posted about the birth. Rest assured, Rianna gave birth to a healthy and happy baby girl, named Noa Jubilee in late August. We are so happy to have her in our lives and hope you will get to meet her sometime! However, we have decided not to post pictures of her face on Facebook or other social media – and would ask you to do the same if you visit us. This post gives some of my reasons for doing so.

To start with the positive: After we announced the pregancy, we received an overwhelming outpouring of support in all kinds of ways. Tons of people reached out, to congratulate and offer support. We were humbled when friends (and even some people we only know through facebook!) sent us prayers, money, used clothes or brought food over. We got to reconnect to some old friends that we had fallen out of touch with. In short, it was a great example of some of the best things about social media: sharing about our lives and drawing people into community.

At the same time, it got me wondering.

1) The birth announcement post got more likes, hearts, and virtual hugs than any previous post of mine. That felt great, too! People were excited with us and wanted to share that. But the fact that the likes and hearts felt so good, is an indicator of how this platform works: It preys on our positive feedback loops and our psychological need to belong, in order to create and mine data. Data which gets turned into a profit from selling targeted ads to potentially more sinister uses such as predictive policing. There are many who complain about parents who (seemingly) spend more time on their smartphones than with their children. But rarely do we take seriously the insidious positive reinforcement we all participate in by liking and sharing.
Parenting, much like a committed relationship is a school for holiness. I want to be formed to give my child all the attention she needs. Too often this platform feels like it rewards people more for performance than perception. Not posting pictures is a way of fasting from unhelpful input.

2) Growing up I wasn’t excited by some of the baby photos my parents loved to show around. (I now cherish them). What if these photos weren’t kept in a picture album to bring out every time relatives visited, but were always there on the internet, maybe even attached to my name, so they’d show up in a google search forever? How would that have shaped my perception of myself? Most children I know are very aware of the cameras around them and perform for the photo, wanting to please. This freaks me out a little, as it feels like grooming them for the panopticon. How can we instead prepare children to nonconform freely to a world of near-total commercial and governmental surveillance?

3) If face-recognition software—already capable of creating rather convincing deep-fakes of celebrities and politicians—increases at the projected rate, anyone with some skill and money will be able to create pictures and videos of ordinary people like me and you (or specifically our daughter) and make them say or do all kinds of stuff. This is a serious problem that requires legislation and robust technological ethics, but one way to concretely slow it down is by posting less images online, thus depriving the algorithms of at least some of the data they feed on to learn.
This is a form of conscientious objection.

To sum up: I will stay on facebook and even instagram because it’s a useful platform for me. I use it to stay in contact with far away friends, and getting to know new ones, debating and spreading ideas and more. Rianna is mainly on Insta and will also use it. She posts more photos, but we agreed to draw a line at Jubilee’s face.

This is a tricky subject and I hope you know me well enough to know I don’t judge people who make other choices. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and maybe this will be a good platform for this conversation? If we want Facebook to be created for humans and not humans for Facebook, we need to be having these conversations and act upon our consciences.

If you read until the end of this long post, you might be wondering: “But where do I get to see this cute baby?” We have an email list and send out a yearly newsletter (send me a DM with your email address, if you’d like to join!). We also sometimes send photos on messenger apps (even WhatsApp which is the height of hypocrisy, but well there is no right life in the wrong.)

And of course, you could just visit us.

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