Privacy for the vault

I wrote an essay recently that I shared with my writing group, noting that it was one “for the vault.” One of the other members came up with that phrase a few years back to refer to essays we wanted to craft and share and maybe revise and improve—an essay, in other words, not a letter or journal entry—but wouldn’t be sending out into the world for the foreseeable future, if ever.

Essays “for the vault” are often about parenting experiences, though not always. Sometimes, for me at least, one will involve an experience that affected me personally, often traumatic, but that is someone else’s story to share, or keep private. Which, really, all parenting stories are anyway.

My writing group members and I started meeting online over Google Hangout long before the pandemic—I’m thinking 2012 or 2013—before any of us had ever met in person. Most of us had written parenting essays for Brain, Child magazine, and followed the founder and former editor when she moved to launch the essay site Full Grown People. It was in a Facebook group for FGP’s writers that we met and formed an online writing group where we workshopped essays once a month and got to know one another.

At some point each of us stopped writing about our children. We’re all mothers, and it’s a strange territory to navigate, where your baby’s life and stories start out as being also your own life and stories, but, for most, eventually turns into their own life and stories. At different points and for different reasons each of us seemed to find that those stories were no longer ours to narrate. When I do drag one of my kids into an essay these days, I try to make it not really about them but about something larger—I often fail at that and always feel guilty.

Where do parental rights end and a child’s ownership of their self and autonomy begin? What kind of experiences can a parent restrict, or damage inflict, before a child’s future potential is irrevocably limited?

This question is the main reason I don’t share photos of my kids online. I did, when they were little, for about five years. Sometimes a friend will send me a screenshot of a Facebook “memory” that came up for them featuring one of my kids as a baby or toddler, even though I deleted all photos of them years before deleting my Facebook account. Facebook owned those photos the second I posted them, which I knew at the time but it still annoys me.

This is a much bigger issue than any of us realizes because most of the world has no inkling of what kind of control data mining will eventually have over our lives. The moment a prospective parent posts about being pregnant, filing adoption papers, or shares a sonogram photo or a coming-home day—from the very first post, that social media company owns part of that child’s future because they own the data, and none of us knows what that will come to mean.

On the other hand, these platforms are almost the only medium many of us have to share the milestones and experiences and challenges of life, even privately. We’re not given much of a choice even as we’re not given any control over what companies do with the data they glean. What about Facebook support groups, which can be a lifeline, for parents of children with rare illnesses or certain disabilities?

Maybe we ought to be able to share photos of and stories about our kids and the realities of parenting with people who care without that decision having detrimental effects on their future lives that we can’t foresee.

One of the reasons I get hung up on digital tech is because, after years of studying the loss of walking in America, it’s impossible for me to not see the way that car-centric infrastructure, from crosswalk design to the way we build cars themselves, damages every facet of human life. It’s a technology whose consequences weren’t predicted in the beginning, and so its shape and impact were determined by those who stood to profit, with the result that human society serves cars, not the other way around.

I see digital technology, including AI and data mining, as the equivalent of automobiles in the 1920s, when mass protests against cars’ speed, space-hogging, and deathly toll defined society’s relationship to them, until men from car companies created think tanks to serve their purposes, and eventually climbed into governmental positions to smash highways through neighborhoods, bend our lives around suburban car dependency, and then spend decades convincing society that this was the life we’d dreamed of.

The fundamental problem isn’t technology—I wrote this piece with a pen in a notebook under in an electric light before typing it on my laptop to then post it to the magical interwebs so it could arrive in your inbox, all while listening to a Spotify playlist, technology every step of the way—the problem is whether society is allowed to determine how that technology is used, or whether we exist to serve the profit motives of its owners and creators.

I don’t fully know how that will play out with digital technology, whether we’re talking about regulation of data mining or better anti-monopoly enforcement or a new vision of a democratic internet like MIT’s SOLID project or whether we’re going to lose more of ourselves and our health and our communities because nobody got a handle on the thing early enough. But I do know that for the moment my kids’ only protection against the data mining that will inevitably shape part of their future is me minimizing their online presence.*

And when it comes to children and self-determination this isn’t a tech-only problem. I first got interested in the tension between parental rights and children’s rights to own their own future selves after reading Hella Winston’s Unchosen, a 2009 nonfiction book adapted from the author’s Ph.D. thesis that followed young adults who’d grown up in a strict ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York—young adults who wanted to leave the community or at least explore the opportunities of the world a bit more, but none of whom had the educational or social skills to even know where to begin because their culture restricted their educational and social access. As I wrote in my old blog at the time:

The women the author meets have only a 4th-grade education. The men have what run-of-the-mill secular Westerners might deem a warped view of sex and sexuality. Many of the men and women barely speak English. Not a one of them is trained in any useful trade or skill beyond reading Hebrew, caring for children, or basic carpentry, this in the center of one of the world's great metropolises of opportunity.

After finishing the book, I was left with the feeling that, by giving adults the freedom to raise their children in their own religion, and by allowing them to keep their children from contact with the outside world, we have, by societal assent, stolen these people’s freedom to choose almost anything once they become adults.

I thought about that book again recently when a friend and I were talking about a local evangelical Christian megachurch that he and his wife had attended out of curiosity, and in which they watched, horrified, as the pastor (with the usual emotion-manipulating light show, music, etc.) declared that everyone who was not saved would be going directly to hell when they died. That wasn’t the part that horrified them. What horrified them was watching a clutch of very young children race down the aisle, crying and terrified at the idea of hell, to be saved.

And I was reminded of it again when reading a thread a few months back by a Montana woman who’d grown up in a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling family. It’s really worth reading in full. This woman doesn’t know me from Adam, but I am grateful that she shared her experiences, which echo somewhat those of Tara Westover’s ultra-religious unschooling experience growing up in Idaho, though of different Christian sects.**

The point isn’t religion/not religion, but what happens to many of these people as they become adults. People whose religious upbringing demanded ignorance and the cultivation of guilt and fear, or people brought up by adults who abused them and undermined their sense of self and capability, or people brought up simply lacking the skills—whether practical, linguistic, educational, or social—to give them enough flexibility that they might maintain some determination over their own eventual lives.

What rights do our future selves have? It’s a question that perhaps every parent could entertain because our children’s needs and dependencies are going to vary massively, but it’s also a question I wish tech companies—and road designers and chemical companies and mining conglomerates—were required to factor into their designs.

It’s frustrating knowing that I can’t even share an essay “for the vault” with my writing group without Google’s Gmail program trawling it for the advertising maw, much less share a photo of my kids or any details about their lives without Facebook et al. mining that information for usable data. So I let go, a little, and don’t even know what might be lost in the choices I’m struggling to make.

The vast inheritance of digital technology at our fingertips should be designed to allow all of us to make those choices with a radically different view of freedom in mind. We should be able to use them trusting that the natural, absolutely vital human need for connection shouldn’t simply be feed for the captains of industry and profit. With the question at the forefront of business meetings not being “How can I sell you more stuff?” but “What will enable your future self’s best chance at self-determination?” Maybe all of our technologies, religion included, should be designed with that question in mind.

My group has seen our writer-parent relationships change dramatically over the years. We’ve gone through intense experiences and a lot of trauma and worry and work. We’ve put a lot in the vault; it’s in that act, maybe, that we’ve learned to begin letting go of the idea that our children are ours rather than their own, privatizing our experiences in order to let them live as fully as possible while knowing the privilege we’ve been afforded to make that choice.

*I’d still like better answers from school districts about what happens with the data from all the programs they use, from Google classroom to proprietary standardized tests to the “learning” programs like my favorites-to-loathe IXL and Xtra Math. The programs I’ve seen largely do a terrible job of supporting, for example, math education, but I wonder how much the companies that own them benefit from the data they glean from the kids’ activities. It’s not an issue that school districts, with one exception that I know of, are well equipped to ask, much less answer.

**If you want to go deeper into that rabbit hole, this thread by R.L. Stollar on a history “textbook” commonly used in homeschooling families and private Christian schools is eye-opening, as is this one about the same textbook by schoolteacher Josiah Hawthorne. Or you could just . . . not go down those rabbit holes. I don’t know what my capacity it is for knowing about things that make me want to hide my family in the woods for pretty much ever, but things like this make me think I’m reaching it. Except that I know there is no level of separation or security that can protect us from one another. The only answer is to reach deeper in and try to reduce suffering for as many as possible.