A Theory of Digital Hygiene

…Cleanliness is godliness
And God is empty just like me.
Zero by The Smashing Pumpkins (1996)

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, our interaction with the digital has increased to never-before-seen heights. Along with it identity theft, hacks, the ‘misinfodemic’, data breaches, phishing, and other cyber risks all skyrocketed as result. Thus, improved or increased cybersecurity has become a necessity for all actors upon the digital networks. The tendency is to look to cybersecurity companies, studies, or governmental branches on (cyber) defense for these directives, whose deployment of military metaphors grant themselves a certain authority. However, another approach has emerged simultaneously within the field, one that leans towards principles of education and discipline. This approach has come to be known as ‘digital hygiene’. The rise of ‘digital hygiene’ to increase, secure, and sanitize cyberspace corresponds with the ubiquity of the internet, its political-economic influence, and socio-cultural pervasiveness within everyday life.

Digital hygiene encourages individuals to perform routine-based digital practices in order to minimize cyber risks. In contrast to cyber security’s use of military or war-like metaphors, the narrative of digital hygiene returns to illness as metaphor, as introduced by Susan Sontag in a 1977 lecture, which provided the basis for her famous short book Illness as Metaphor (1978).

The use of metaphors to explain and guide concepts, in both everyday vernacular and authoritative rhetorics, has the tendency to instill morality that carries a disciplinary power. Back in 2014, the Institute of Network Culture’s (INC) Theory On Demand publication already provided insight into how we can consider ‘digital hygiene’ as a metaphor. In a text titled Transcoding the Digital, the late Marianne van den Boomen unravels ‘digital praxis’, a coherent set of everyday practices that involve the manipulation, modification, and construction of digital-symbolical objects that “somehow matter socially”.

The relationship between the praxis and the objects is metaphorical. This theorizing of ‘digital hygiene’ borrows from Van den Boomen’s conceptual framework to unravel how the disciplinary praxis of ‘good’ digital citizenship and the relationship to its digital-symbolic objects through the metaphor of hygiene (and its history) is constructed in the first place. How does digital hygiene come into play in the cybersecurity discourse? Who is advocating for it? What is ‘good hygiene citizenship’ and how does ‘digital hygiene’ claim to provide it? This essentially outlines the current situation and provides insights into where ‘digital hygiene’ might be heading.

Prevention Over Defence

The digital has always been seen as a space where ‘battles’ are fought, albeit through viruses, heated debates, combats between hackers and the hegemony (think Mr. Robot), or other forms of cyber-attacks. The growth of the internet has been, and is, paralleled by the growth of cybersecurity. On one hand, the neoliberal foundation of the web paved the way for Silicon Valley’s capitalist tech ventures we see dominating the online platform economy and contemporary capitalism at large today. On the other hand, it created a landscape where information flows without restriction, and this circulation of information—including freedom of speech—is considered of utmost importance to be maintained at all cost.

These are two sides of the same coin, but while the former required protection for political-economic ends, it is the latter, the more socio-cultural, which now seems to be running wild without restraint. It’s visible in the battle against piracy, the way platforms are currently (attempting to) combat fake news or harmful information through content moderation, and the oft used securing of terms within cybersecurity discourse that are military metaphors. Whether they are referring to the non-human technology or the humans behind cybersecurity, militant metaphors act as the authoritative agent between the cyber risks, the network, its users, and other stakeholders. While this form of agency carries a responsibility, it also generates dependency which centers power around these actors in cybersecurity.

Figure 1: Transcoding existing practices.

Military Metaphors Meet Medical Metaphors

These militant metaphors parallel the metaphorical world of medicine where cancer is battled, diseases are neutralized, infections infiltrate, and illness is defeated, or doctors fought until the bitter end. Wordings like this illustrate the ‘medicine is war’ metaphor whilst utilizing Sontag’s insights on illness as metaphor. In the aforementioned text, Sontag describes how military metaphors are abundant in discourses of plagues and how we respond to it through hygiene:

“[M]etaphors of illness are malign in a double way: they cast opprobrium on sick people and they hinder the rational and scientific apprehension that is needed to contain disease and provide care for people. To treat illness as a metaphor is to avoid or delay or even thwart the treatment of literal illness.”

The opprobrium cast upon sick people can act as a form of discipline. Metaphor also can obscure the nature of an illness. This act of applying existing concepts to the digital realm through metaphor is what van den Boomen calls transcoding. The familiarity of practicing good bodily hygiene makes it easier to understand similar practices in the frame of sanitizing digital environments of disease or viruses. The metaphor of ‘digital hygiene’ broadens the target audience and allows for more participants to enter the field. Routine practices ought not to be too technical since the more users there are practicing ‘good digital hygiene’, the better both personal and collective digital security will be. What follows is a list of actors and advocates who are attempting to educate user-consumers via utilization of the good-bad conflict:

Words such as safe, good, healthy, responsible, and respectful recur in their pursuit to moralize digital hygiene. The suggested practices include regularly updating passwords, actively limiting one’s digital and social footprints, managing your mailbox, downloading software from legitimate sources, encrypting backups, and so on. Some encourage the use of technology such as 2FA, password managers, and firewalls.

Figure 2: 12 digital hygiene commandments by digitalhygiene.net.

Digital-Symbolic Objects

The use of software represents the materialization of the digital-symbolic objects and matter socially in the sense that they signify cleanliness or sterility. Other digital-symbolic objects such as VPNs also increase one’s cyber defense and provide personal control through privacy and anonymity, however, their prominence in suggestions is limited since the use of VPNs potentially circumvents personalized ads, thus opposing platform-economy logics. Normalizing practices, such as the ‘12 Commandments’ in Figure 2, discipline users to be(come) good digital citizens through an implicit message that it is their duty to keep digital spaces clean.

Good hygiene is made synonymous with good digital citizenship and thus not partaking in the practice becomes labeled as inherently ‘bad’. However, it requires a certain digital competence or accessibility to make use of these transcoded metaphors. This means that illiterate demographics, the elderly for instance—who already are frequent targets of personal hacks—or those whose budget does not allow for the use of smartphones, desktop computers, personal laptops, or access to these forms of information, are all excluded. Discriminating notions of classism lie behind the moralized and moralizing language.

Traditional actors of the field, like the gatekeeping cybersecurity companies, are also adapting to this new narrative. Not by modifying their products, but rather by introducing the same moralizing language in their content marketing through blogs.

Through content such as the above, stalwarts of the cyber-safety industry have found creative ways to acknowledge the self-preserving acts of digital hygiene whilst their products implicitly tell their users that there is a socio-technical problem they have a responsibility towards but can’t fix on their own. Again, it is the consumer’s duty to undo the internet’s fundamental flaws and become a good digital citizen by investing in cybersecurity products: Consumerism is the available antiseptic towards attaining digital purity.

Just as philosopher Slavoj Žižek observed that Starbucks coffee ‘creates moral consumers’ by including an informal tax to aid some towns in a third world country somewhere, moral consumerism is also present in the commodification of digital hygiene through the subjectivization of good digital citizens. The use of purchased software symbolizes good digital citizenship. Similar to Mark Fisher’s comments on how the solution to treating mental health as a natural individualized pathology is sold back to the individual in a capitalist society, so, too, is the solution to the problem of digital hygiene. Atomised, and sold back to us, by cybersecurity software companies in the most surveillance-capitalist-way possible where user transparency is traded for increased privatized surveillance.

Beyond the Software

The commodification of the digital hygiene metaphor can also be found beyond cybersecurity software. Think about digital detoxes, another prime example of Fisher’s observation. Those who can afford it (another classism alert) take a break to purify themselves of the illnesses that come along with being online all the time: addiction, FOMO, stress, depression, instant gratification, and so on. Others who can’t afford to be offline just have to deal with this, I guess…

In contrast to the authoritative narrative of cybersecurity, the disciplinary power of hygiene metaphors can become malleable to fit other digital fields where it moralizes online users. For instance,

This form of power creates a certain type of individual. One producing new habits, movements, and skills by utilising and employing rules, surveillance, exams, and control.

These examples illustrate the spread of ‘digital hygiene’ as metaphor’s moralizing language, as well as how it is used without much regard towards its politics—Bergmann’s article is an exception—and its disciplinary nature. These metaphor’s use is little contested as various terminologies are used to signify good digital citizenship: digital literacy, media literacy, digital competence, digital detox, digital declutter, digital proficiency, digital hygiene, data hygiene or cyber hygiene, to provide a shortlist. While this essay focuses on hygiene, all metaphors generate a good-bad dichotomy that carries an embedded disciplinary power within them. This form of power creates a certain type of individual. One producing new habits, movements, and skills by utilizing and employing rules, surveillance, exams, and control. The aim is prevention, through moral education of digital hygiene, rather than protection.

Instead of serving as an authoritative intermediary, this discourse places its emphasis on the user and conceptualizes the problem as a personal responsibility to become a ‘good digital citizen’. By introducing a more soft-spoken, moralistic language, the effort becomes about minimizing cyber risks through the advocacy of self-preservation. Semantics such as ‘literacy’, ‘hygiene’, ‘good citizenship’, ‘commandments’, ‘abilities’, ‘skills’, ‘awareness’ and ‘practice’ all indicate the shift from the traditional authoritative military metaphor to the disciplinary narrative that also invites an education system into the realm of cybersecurity and the subjectivization of digital citizens. ‘Practicing good hygiene’ implies cleanliness, not only of your environment but also of one’s self. Cleanliness doesn’t start with washing your hands, but rather by knowing why and how to wash your hands. The education is here to help with that by singling out the individual. These notions of self-preservation and moralization coincide with a specific kind of ideology, with a political history.

I am the Hydra-headed beast
I am the worm you can never delete
I am the dangers that never sleeps
I am the virus
I am the virus
I am the Virus by Killing Joke (2015)

Washing the Hands of Hygiene

The ideology of wellness essentially presents its subject with a feeling of being fundamentally flawed and provides a solution that advocates the user to take matters into their own hands and to purify themselves. To not dwell further on the demoralized path of dirtiness, one needs to take certain measures, begin certain practices, and buy certain products. Since neoliberal capitalism sees personal responsibility as an important political and economic creed, it concurs with the ideology of wellness’s emphasis on the self. As seen earlier, the ideology of wellness is fundamental to the good-bad dichotomy of the moral consumerism advocated by cybersecurity companies.

Bergmann finds this ideology through the moralizing language in metabolic metaphors in digital data hygiene, but they are constitutional to hygiene as metaphor and the overarching illness as metaphor. She argues that the usage of disenchanting and shaming [language] is effectively counterproductive and hides the true problem: an industry built on neoliberal digital utopianism, surveillance, and data extraction—illustrating what Sontag prophetically observed in the late 70s: metaphors of illness tend to obscure the nature of the illness. Cybersecurity companies, institutions, and big tech, present digital hygiene as a self-preserving solution, but overlook their own role in, and contribution to, the problem. Similarities can be found with the impending ecological crisis, where polluting companies tend to discipline individuals to take responsibility, separate waste, recycle, upcycle, and be mindful about water and meat consumption, in order to minimize their contribution to climate change.

Social Projects Remain Social Projects

Tracing hygiene’s etymology illustrates the political history and relation to social reform and discipline. Rapid urbanization during the Progressive era ushered in the social hygiene (and purity) movement during the 19th century, which aimed to oust social immorality such as prostitution and the spread of STIs, subsequently bringing along gender inequality, racial marginalization, and hints of eugenics. Science and media techniques were utilized to advocate for self-discipline in order to put emphasis on the individual’s responsibility towards the public health problem. The movement itself later made its way into the education system. This is where institutionalization enters, and the initial relation between hygiene and literacy can be located. Standardization through the education system and social reform disciplined individuals to maintain cleanliness and stray from dirty immoral behavior. Along with public health officials, these regulatory apparatuses aimed to sterilize the spaces ‘diseased’ by urbanization—as a result neutralizing marginalized groups through civic standardization.

The use of hygiene as a metaphor extracted from illness as metaphor thus borrows and extrapolates from this disciplinary history of exclusion and moralization as well. The comparisons should not be hard to notice. Firstly, urbanization as the cause for the movement can be paralleled to digital urbanization: The shift from the early blogosphere and web 1.0 towards web 2.0 and the contemporary platformed internet. Today, we are taught that an innumerable amount of people use platforms without universal hygiene protocols. The subsequent increase in cyber risks ask for standardization through methods beyond cybersecurity: the current advocation and colloquially appropriate phrasing is made explicit on digitalhygiene.net’s homepage:

Digitalization or deployment of various digital solutions has become critical in our daily business and private lives. Our world has never been more technology-centric. Especially this year as more and more brick-and-mortar businesses and solutions have moved online. And the sheer volume of transactions taking place online is staggering. This digital acceleration hasn’t been without its risks.

Parallels between the social hygiene movement can also be found also in terms of the moral panics that come as a result of urbanization. Societal ills during the Progressive era required regulation, both by the public and institutions. Today we see something similar with the spread of misinformation, conspiracy culture, rising ethnonationalism, and polarisation, all taking place online. These immoral digital activities take place more on the fringes of the net where radical thought finds a safe haven, piracy takes place, and illegal goods can be marketed. Sanitisation, thus, is not confined to the urbanized platforms. A new infrastructure is currently being implemented, a digital sewage system to sanitize the streets of the platform economy whilst simultaneously neutralizing the polluted cesspool where immoral digital activity such as hacking, conspiracism, trolling, piracy, and radicalization, takes place (what about the dark web though?). The people who inhabit these contaminated spaces are sanitized and their acts are labeled poisonous through the use of moralizing language, disciplining digital users that such immoral acts belong in the gutter.

Naturally, digital urbanization also brings along digital gentrification. Similar to the social hygiene movement, digital hygiene is (on the cusp of being) institutionalized, but also melts into PR marketing tactics by neoliberal capitalism. It is a double-edged sword where standardization will make for control, also bringing along increased surveillance and traditional notions of exclusion.

“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”
– A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Together we Clean, Divided we Soil

Digital hygiene follows as a magnified version of Sontag’s illness as metaphor and discipline through moralizing language. While it is still in full development, perhaps arguably in its early-adopter stage, one can already see its pervasiveness. The adjacency of military and illness metaphors makes it easier to adopt and transcode digital hygiene into something that is understood by many and required for digital urbanization’s population increase. We could expect a more pronounced version in the near future, increasingly incorporated into formal education and endorsed by governments.

Following the political history and relationship between military metaphors in discourses of plague, it would seem that ‘hygiene’ suits the climate of cybersecurity better than ‘literacy’. Not only because illness as metaphor holds virality during the global pandemic, since it is used almost ubiquitously in the news about COVID-19, but also because the internet and cybersecurity are already littered with illness metaphors—memes go viral, computer viruses, the spread of misinformation, infected computers, 4chan as a cancerous cesspool of racism.

Just as Sontag foretold, through the individualizing hygiene metaphor and its accompanying software objects we’re encouraged to use, the true nature of the illness that is cyber risk is obscured. Platform capitalism shifts its responsibility onto us. Therefore, I propose a critical definition of digital hygiene as follows:

A socio-technical reform that disciplines digital user-consumers towards moral purity through routinely-based self-regulation and surveillance.

It is not us, the individual, who are the patients, but rather the networks serving capitalism. In this discourse, we’re carrying and spreading the disease of immoral digital activity and need to be neutralized—similar to the imposed disciplines of mask mandates, curfews, and other dreadful things we’ve encountered the past year. These measures carry an urgency to them, especially during rapid-changing times, whether that be the pandemic or an increasingly populated and congested digital space.

Figure 3: What we learn is what we know (source: Existential Comics).

It is not that discipline itself is inherently bad. With increased data breaches, hacks, phishing, and viruses that problematize internet usage, both individuals and the capitalist structures rely on it. However, this critical analysis and theorizing of digital hygiene illuminate the underlying disciplinary powers that accompany the digital hygiene discourse and construct individuals, modifying their behaviors and habits accordingly to serve the structures dependent on ‘good digital citizenship’. The advocates of digital hygiene, an assemblage of hegemonic platform capitalists, neoliberalism, and ‘traditional’ state apparatuses, educate users of these practices under the name of ‘Skills for the 21st  Century’ while simultaneously constructing a digital sewage infrastructure. We are continually reminded why it is there, what septic waste flows through it, and that a good digital citizen does not act like a pig and never dares to wallow in such dirt.

Special thanks to fellow INC colleague Jess Henderson for their help with this article.