Digital Hygiene: A Metaphor of Dirty Proportions 

“We need to practice good digital hygiene to keep us healthy and safe.”

Kip Glazer, “A Quick Guide to Good Digital Hygiene.”

“One can’t go on anymore, she said, electronics seem so clean and yet it dirties, dirties tremendously, and it obliges you to leave traces of yourself everywhere as if you were shitting and peeing on yourself continuously: I want to leave nothing, my favourite key is the one that deletes.

Elana Ferrante, The Story of The Lost Child. Chapter 48.

By the end of the 1980s , the idea of the merger of the ‘biological’ with the ‘technological’ had infiltrated Western culture […]. For whatever else it might imply, this merger relies on a reconceptualization of the human body as a boundary figure belonging simultaneously to at least two previously incompatible systems of meaning- ‘the organic/natural’ and ‘the technological/cultural’. At the point at which the body is reconceptualized not as a fixed part of nature, but as a boundary concept, we witness an ideological tug-of-war between competing systems of meaning which include and in part define the material struggles of physical bodies.

Anne Balsamo, “Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture.” Body & Society. 3-4 (1995) 215 … 215-237).

One no longer touched the body, or at least as little as possible, and then only to reach something other than the body itself. Michele Foucault, Discipline & Punish. 11.


Preface: If only I was a better person: Filthy Computer, Shame Shame

This is a draft version of this essay prepared for Prof. Anelise Shrout’s class! Please contact the author before circulating or citing (Mar 4, 2019). A final version will be posted soon.

As I sit down to write this essay on digital hygiene, I notice my laptop is filthy. I dig around for a box of cleaning wipes for electronic surfaces I bought on guilty impulse a long time ago. I think about the invention of “cleaning wipes.” What first initiated the invention of the “cleaning wipe”? Was it hot wings and the need for a convenient “wet one,” to replace the bowl of warm water and lemon I remember from a long time ago? Maybe it was Kentucky Fried Chicken? (It is.) Isn’t KFC where the stash of “wet naps” came from, stored in the glove box of my parents’ van, to be grabbed when one or more of the many children made a mess with an ice-cream cone or had a face covered in grime, which needed to be wiped away in order to make us presentable? It seems like these days every surface and device—human, furniture, electronic, exercise—has its own kind of cleaning wipe.

“Not today, update. Not today.” Visual description: Image of update reminder on a Mac computer. The option “Remind Me Tomorrow” is selected. Computer folders have their titles redacted in orange blocks, except for one file title, “cat pictures.” Image by T.L. Cowan 2019.

Back to my laptop. There are food bits and drink splashes on keyboard and screen. It’s unusual for me to notice this when I am working at home, but every time someone else comes close to this machine, every crumb and smear becomes so very visible to me (and when I see them, see my grime, my filth), and I feel the heat of what Eve Sedgwick so memorably called “blazons of shame” –“the ‘fallen face’ with eyes down and head averted—and to a lesser extent the blush—are semaphores of trouble and yet at the same time, a desire to reconstitute the interpersonal bridge” (Sedgwich 36). I verbally acknowledge that my computer is filthy, and invariably (silently or not) wish I was a better person, wish I had better habits, that I remembered to eat further away from my laptop, or at least to wipe it down before leaving the house. Why don’t I carry those cleansing wipes with me everywhere I go?!

More confession: my laptop’s “insides” are also a mess. My Adobe Creative Suite subscription has been expired for so long now. Even at the institutional rate it’s almost $400.00 to renew and just for year. I’m running an expired, unsupported OS, having resisted, refused or ignored updates for so long now. But the reminders pop up every morning, and I click, “Remind Me Tomorrow,” as I have done everyday for years and years. Not today, update. Not today.

I have two browsers running, each with multiple windows open and in each window, dozens of tabs. In total, hundreds of tabs are active at all times. I bookmark but keep them open anyways. I want them with me at all times. My Zotero bibliography tool may or may not be synched with one or both of these browsers. I may have multiple accounts.

Every time my desktop gets accidentally projected onto a public screen during a presentation, making my bad habits, my disorganization, my messy, filthy computer visible for all to see, I die a little inside. Every time a student catches a glimpse of my desktop, they comment with shock on the hundreds of open tabs. “I know,” I say, “Welcome to my brain.”

Visual description: a kitten in the grass with paw over it’s face. Caption “Don’t look at my desktop.”


If I were one kind of different person, I would save myself these embarrassments and would keep my devices in order, would practice “good digital hygiene,” by keeping my updates up-to-date, by closing webpages and apps I’m not using, by trashing all of those unopened emails, by having better habits. If I were another kind of different person, I simply wouldn’t care what other people thought of me. But I live in fear of a computer disaster and that I’m going to lose everything. Even worse, I live in fear that when disaster comes and I lose everything, people will ask about my back-up protocols, which version of my OS I was using, all the questions. And then it will be by fault.

Recently I bought a new computer and have vowed to try to keep things under control. I have updated versions. But things are getting out of control so quickly.

But why is an accidentally displayed disorganized desktop or a groddy keyboard embarrassing?

In a short educational film entitled “Her Own Fault,” released in the 1920s by the Government of Ontario’s Division of Industrial Hygiene, “the film was designed

to encourage better eating, sleeping, and grooming habits among Toronto’s growing female work force, with the ultimate aim of improving industrial output and efficiency” (Lindsey 1995: 82). We see the story of two white girls, one who practices bad hygiene, the other who practices good hygiene. There’s Mamie—the girl who fails—who stays out with men all night, sleeps in a dingy room, doesn’t wash herself properly, gets to work late, fails to thrive in her factory job and inevitably catches Tuberculosis and ends up in a sanatorium. And then there’s Eileen—the girl who succeeds—who sleeps in a breezy room, washes herself thoroughly and brushes her teeth, arrives to work on time, exercises outdoors in the evenings and eventually is promoted at her factory job. Reminiscent of Hogarth’s “The Harlot’s Progress” and every other cautionary tale you’ve ever heard, this hygiene public service announcement intended for public school and Women’s Institute screenings, gives us a pretty good idea of why an unkempt computer might fill me will fears of disaster, blame and shame. You can imagine what Mamie’s laptop would look like—a lot like mine. Our laptops, ourselves.

Introduction: Digital Hygiene

In this post, and in my larger and ongoing project about discourses and practices of digital hygiene, I argue that the predominance of hygiene discourses—specifically “digital hygiene” and its corollaries—that is, the metaphorization and medicalization of digital devices as bodies to be kept healthy, clean and safe through good habits, or to be left unhealthy, dirty and unsafe through bad habits, importantly latches onto centuries-long hygiene discourses and protocols that have their roots in the overlapping regimes of colonial, penal, military, religious, medical, and brand/product power. Because hygiene has always been about the administering of bodies through the punishing of “bad” habits, the introduction, the surveillance-promotion-disciplining of new “good” habits, and the innovation and advertising of products to necessitate, sustain and enforce these new good habits, our psyches are ready to be shamed when we are discovered to have bad digital hygiene. Here, I am interested in digital hygiene shame certainly, but more so in how this came about, how the digital was claimed by hygiene. Or rather, I am interested in questions of how the digital environment and digital culture more broadly—human-built relational infrastructures—are products of hygienic design: what is the significance of ‘hygiene’ as a way of understanding our digital habits? How might the long histories of the discourses of hygiene have structured our digital existences?


A digital cross-stitch in light blue reads: “Before presentations, don’t just groom yourself but also your laptop. It could spare you some embarrassment.” Tags are cross-stictched in pink: computer, desktop, display, hygiene, job application, keyboard, mobile phone, tablet pc. Deutsche Telekom AG. 2010.

In this first post, I begin with a survey of popular mobilizations of ‘digital ‘hygiene’, thinking particularly of the labours associated with keeping our computers and devices “clean and safe” In the larger project, I consider the ways that digital hygiene is a concern in contemporary expressive culture including Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer e-motion picture and Alexandra Tigchelaar’s Clean Bea digital project (published here on DREC).

“Digital hygiene” (also “computer hygiene”) is one trope in an amalgam of tropes that currently shape and colour how we participate in and understand digital life. The term “digital hygiene” generally refers to variously described and defined sets of habits that are required to promote what is usually framed in terms with some combination of digital safety and health—an amalgam we’re familiar with thanks to Mary Russo’s Purity and Danger: and those to follow her. As Mél Hogan notes, following Russo, “If we consider that dirt is matter out of place […], what is ‘dirty’ violates a collective preconceived ideal of order and belonging, proper placement and polish” (2018). What we experience now as digital hygiene is a shifting collective ideal of what constitutes order, belonging, proper placement and polish on the one hand, and what constitutes dirt and the danger of contamination on the other. Russo asks,

Should I not allow for the obsessional artist whose tolerance of disorder is practically complete? His studio is chaotic, he sleeps there, eats there, urinates in the hand basin or out of the window when his passion for his work gives him no time to go to the w.c. Everything looks wildly disordered, except on his canvas: there alone do calm and order reign. (xviii)

I feel a bit this way about my laptop—shouldn’t there be tolerance for my eccentricity? my creativity? my chaos? The significant differences of course between the artist’s studio that Russo describes above, are 1) the artist here is a man, and white men especially, but men in general, have historically been far less heavily targeted by hygiene discourse and 2) the studio is his personal domain, somewhat separate from the lives of others (unless we think of the social life of vermin and bugs, and then perhaps not). Hygiene has typically relied on both the science of identifying contagions and the morality that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness.’ Public health has always been at its root a practice structured by network logics which link the personal and the collective. Industrial hygiene, for example, always depended on network technologies of the workshop floor—of manufacturing body-machines and their mutual dependency and vulnerability. Unless our devices are not connected via any network, have never sent an email or browsed the internet, there is no longer such thing as a “personal computer.” Because of the networked nature of digital life, there is a low tolerance for the disorder of the studio on our devices. We’re all a risk and at risk, we’re all on the network workshop floor contaging each other with every digital move we make, every breath we take.

Russo offers a possible answer to the question I ask in my preface: “But why is an accidentally displayed disorganized desktop or a groddy keyboard embarrassing? She observes that “[a]rguments about risk are highly charged, morally and politically. Naming a risk amounts to an accusation. The selection of which dangers are terrifying and which can be ignored depends on what kind of behaviour the risk-accusers want to stop” (xix). Thus, to be seen to be digitally dirty, like earlier forms of hygiene violation, is to be accused of being a network risk. Digital hygiene’s power manifests through the highly charged and highly valued imagined health and safety of the network, like the health and safety of the workshop floor or of the body politic; this power becomes visible through the metaphors through which it circulates.

Digital Hygiene’s Mixed Metaphors

Sometimes the hygiene metaphor characterize our devices as a form of embodiment and sometimes as a form of inhabitation, many instances use both. For example this entry at is pieced together from phrases drawn from several online posts:

Digital hygiene is a term used to describe the cleanliness or uncleanliness of one’s digital habitat. This could be used to describe one’s desktop icons, file structure, folder trees, Photoshop files or harddrive, Facebook page or digital persona. Just as one’s body can become unhealthy by the buildup of poor food choices, one’s hard drive can become unhealthy by the buildup of viruses, icons and fragmented software.

Your digital hygiene has to be approached in the same way. You need to build it into your daily routine. Just like you brush your teeth every night before bed, you need to plug your cell phone in every night before bed.” (2012 emphasis added)

Here digital hygiene moves quickly from “cleanliness or uncleanliness of one’s digital habitat” to a simile linking unhealthy bodies with unhealthy hard drives. This mixing of metaphors is common practice and should not be surprising, given that hygiene has always merged its control over bodies, domestic and work spaces; depending on the political will in any given moment, public health has historically been concerned with the connection between living and working conditions and assessments of risk factors for illness or accidents.

The other central element to hygiene discourse and protocols in general is the introduction of a daily routine of good habits. As Shelby Doyle and Nick Senske explain in a paper about Architecture pedagogy entitled “Soft Skills for Digital Designers,” “[d]igital hygiene refers to the good habits of caring for equipment, computer hardware and software as well as preventing and recovering from errors” (2016, 478). This includes file organization “in a structure which is both navigable and searchable by users”; “creat[ing] a backup routine that is an embedded part of the digital process (cloud, physical media, & storage). It also includes knowledge and use of software auto-backup and recovery”; and general “clean-up,” which means “regularly sort, store, and purge project files to manage storage and make important files easier to locate” (Ibid).

Digital hygiene is almost always described in terms of lists. For example, CIO Bill Snyder’s “5 simple steps to boost your digital hygiene in 2017” (2017) recalls New Year’s resolution lists for exercise, better eating habits and other self-improvement measures. Snyder writes, “January is a good time to stop making excuses and get your digital life in order. Here are five inexpensive, money-saving, aggravation-reducing ways to maintain tech, and protect yourself and the environment in the New Year.” These include:

  1. Audit digital subscriptions …
  2. Buy (and use) a can of compressed air … to clean the “vents on your laptop and the spaces between keys on your keyboard collect what technical experts call ‘schmutz.’ Clogged vents can cause overheating, and that can kill your laptop. Junk inside a keyboard can cause keys to jam
  3. Find a password manager to love;
  4. Backup, backup and backup again. . . . Backing up can be a pain, but so can locking your door and keeping your money in a bank. If your digital stuff is important to you, you need to back it up to the cloud or buy a roomy external drive — or both;
  5. Recycle old electronic junk. (Snyder 2017)

In an NDItech blogpost from 2014, Aaron Bently’s “My New Year’s Resolution is Good Digital Hygiene. It Should be Yours Too.” ( features an image of a desktop keyboard being washed in a kitchen sink filled with soapy water. Bently writes,

Digital hygiene is like personal hygiene: once you start doing it it becomes second nature and you’re better off. Bad digital hygiene, like not brushing your teeth, can lead to gunk. Whereas the gunk in your teeth from failing to brush regularly will put you in the dentist’s chair, the gunk from failing to protect your mobile phone or computer could land you in jail and, sometimes worse, compromise the security of friends and colleagues (and sources) around you with whom you communicate.… The Internet is a cesspool of viruses, trojans, backdoors, worms, and more and whether you realize it or not every day you wade through it to get to the content you really want. (2014)

Seth Godin offers a digital hygiene protocol for keeping up your ideas alive through regular social media activity. He introduces his “Five steps to digital hygiene” by making a now-familiar analogy: “Washing your hands helps you avoid getting sick. Putting fattening foods out of your reach helps you stay slim. And the provocations and habits you encounter in the digital world keep you productive (or drive you crazy)” (2015). His advice includes “turn[ing] off mail and social media alerts on your phone, not reading the comments on your blog, “de-escalat[ing] anger in email exchanges,” “put[ting] your phone in the glove compartment while driving” and “spend[ing] the most creative hour of your day creating, not responding.” (2015) He finishes this short post with “Each habit is hard to swallow and easy to maintain. Worth it.” (2015)

 Again and again we see how digital habits are corporealized through analogy to make them stick. For the most part, digital hygiene is referenced in a title or tag line but never explicitly defined, as we see in the common sense use of the term in conversations we have and overhear at conferences, on podcasts and in highly-read publications like The Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. I make this point at length because most printed (and verbal) references to “digital hygiene” are used without definition, as if what is meant by digital hygiene (almost always a disciplined set of practices that we should put into place to help ward off bad things from happening to our devices, our identities, our money, and our reputations) is generally understood, indeed generally internalized. My larger argument here, however, is that as a metaphor, digital hygiene—and its affiliates digital health and safety, data hygiene—does not require an analogy to the body since it is, to use an oldie but a goodie, always already corporeal.

If we follow Michel Foucault’s thinking on the internalization of power as essential to the production of docile bodies, it makes sense that any effort to produce compliance in populations is most effective if it exerts this control through an extension of the body. Hygiene protocols based on compliance (and obsolescence) are built into the functionality of our devices. As Digital blogger Randall Rodriguez writes in his post “Establishing Your Digital Hygiene Routine,” “[u]pdates are vital for keeping your system healthy and vulnerability free” (2011 emphasis mine). The extension of the body logics to the machine world makes compliance mandatory.

Anyone who has ever waited too long to update a software or operating system will be familiar with the mechanics of power exerted by the build-in logics of these operations, and the consequences of the failure to internalize, regularize, routinize good digital hygiene habits. If we want to have a digital life—which is the only valued life, the only livable life, in 2019—we must perform all the routines required based on externally imposed timelines: As a discipline, digital hygiene increases “the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience)” (Foucault 138)). As a manifestation of what Foucault calls a “political anatomy” that extends the body and its gestures to wherever control needs to be directed, design for digital hygiene anticipates the ways that bodies will be required to behave, to “operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines” (Foucault 138)– with neocolonial and settler colonial techno-capitalism and the global executives and designers playing the role the “one” who wishes and determines.

This all sounds very techno-dystopian and conspiracy theorist. At one point during the writing of this essay, my dyslexic brain repeatedly typed out “conspiracy” whenever I thought “security.” And while that seemed funny to me at the time, it also struck me that what I’m talking about here is not a conspiracy but a historical pattern, a rut, a habit. Hygiene has been how we understand the training of good habits from bodies, to manufacturing, to our personal devices like refrigerators, washing machines, automobiles, and now our computers, phones and tablets. Everything requires up-keep and updates and the discourse of hygiene, through which we internalize the mechanization of the body and the medicalization of machines, delivers us whatever habits and routines we need to incorporate for healthy life according the day’s prevailing wisdom, or power. Digital hygiene discourse imitates previous modes of hygiene regulation and routinization from personal hygiene to domestic, social, mental and racial hygiene, insofar as we all bear the responsibility to perform the tasks of categorization and separation, of cleansing, sorting, keeping dirt and disorder away. Hygiene is a habit that needs to create the need for more, better, habits. Hygiene gets attached to a cultural formation like “the digital” or “computer” when those techno-cultural formations require new habits by the populations using them in order to increase the efficiency of both those techno-cultural formations and the populations.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that “Habit + Crisis = Update,” and “new media live and die by the update”:

Things no longer updates are things no longer used, useable, or cared for, even though updates often ‘save’ things by literally destroying—that is, writing over—the things they resuscitate. … Things and people not updating are things and people lost or in distress, for uses have become creatures of the update. To be is to be updated: to update and to be subjected to the update. The update is central to disrupting and establishing context and habituation, to creating new habits of dependency. (2 emphasis in original).

While Chun does not use, nor track, the rhetoric of hygiene per se, it strikes me that the habit + crisis = update pattern imitates hygiene discourse: whatever you are doing is wrong if (as Russo notes) what you are doing is perceived as a risk by the “risk accusers.” My formula accounting for hygiene discourse would be: habit + risk = new habit (update/improved hygiene). Chun writes that “neoliberalism thrives on crisis: it makes crisis ordinary. It creates super-empowered subjects called upon to make decisive decisions, to intervene, to turn things around” (3). It individualizes and networks, makes us responsible for our own actions and to blame when fail in our updated habits and bring down the whole network: “Through the analytic of habits, individual actions coalesce bodies into a monstrously connected chimera” (Chun, 3).

I am interested in here in the ways that hygiene functions as a habit of power, a habit of discourse, that operates at both the level of institutionalization and internalization. Forming new habits/being required to form new habits is how we (are required to) deal with the new—new technologies, new medical discoveries, and the subsequent new social mores. Hygiene is informer/enforcer of habit, functioning as both the habit and the logic of the habit, as what we accept and why we accept, as meaning and the underwriter of meaning, as discipline and the patron of discipline.

Under the rule of hygiene (or, good habits that keep us productive), the risk of bad habits (which may simply be the risk of not having good habits) means that, if we fail to practice all the enforced forms of digital hygiene and then we get “infected” with viruses or malware, or attacked by identity-thieving or rape-and-death-threatening trolls, then the punishment for risky behaviour is deserved. Bad digital hygiene—failure to perform all of the precautionary consuming and laboring required to keep you organized and updated—puts you at risk not only of being attacked or losing your data, but of deserving the attack, deserving of the loss of files, or the display of your messy desktop. Thus, with the convergence of our computers and our bodies (and the body’s other metaphoric extensions) through discourses of digital hygiene, we find ourselves compelled into, trained by, and becoming accustomed to the logics, habits and labour of keeping our computers, ourselves,[1] clean, healthy and good. As Michéle Foucault put it, “a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” (Disicpline & Punish 136). So too is a body docile that may be subjected and used in the perpetual transformation and improvement of the devices it needs to be a docile body.

Digital cross-stitch in light blue reads: “Forwarding a virus is like sneezing directly into someone’s face. Practice Digital Hygiene.” Tags in pink cross-stitch reads: computer, email, hygiene, mobile phone, responsibility, security, virus. Source:

The long history of hygiene discourses produces the conditions necessary for the accidental display of a messy desktop to be embarrassing. As our computers have become merged with ourselves, we have internalized that this is not how we are supposed to be. The success of hygiene discourse means that everyone knows that clean is better than dirty, tidy is better than messy. Clean and tidy is healthy. Dirty and messy is unhealthy. Of course there are people who can get away with being dirty and messy and there are people who don’t care. That’s not who I am talking about. For anyone on whom hygiene discourse has had an effect, we know that if our laptop’s desktop is disorganized, it betrays a deeper level of failure to follow good habits. Thus, the accidental exposure of your desktop, if it is messy, might lead your audience to think that the accident is your fault, the reason the tech is not working is your fault, or whether they are thinking it is your fault, you might think that they think it is, which is why it is embarrassing. We know that a messy desktop is embarrassing but is it shameful? The shame equation not just that messiness itself it bad, but that being able to find things is good. Orderliness is industry, is productive, is not wasting time looking for things, is not wasting (everyone’s) time trying to get your laptop to work with a projector.

Dirty Computer / Dirty Computers

In my next post, I consider Janelle Monáe’s third studio album, Dirty Computer and “emotion-picture,” released April 2018. The opening scene begins with the introduction:

They started calling us computers. People began vanishing. And the cleaning began. You were dirty if you looked different.

You were dirty if you refused to look the way they dictated.

You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all.

And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time.

Throughout the emotion-picture two white guys in clinical whites work to complete the “cleansing” protocols, deleting memories of anything, everything, especially, it seems, memories of queer black joy and feminist exuberance. The album showcases these, while the emotion-picture places these songs and their videos in the narrative trajectory of a dirty computer lab. In an interview with Hot 97’s Ebro Darden, when asked, in relation to human beings… “what is a dirty computer?” Monáe reponds:

what is it like to live in a society that is constantly trying to cleanse you and tell you that you need to conform? You need to be reprogrammed, deprogrammed and so I just wanted to talk about my own bugs and viruses and how I’m choosing to deal with it, how I’m choosing to resist that whole notion because dirty computers don’t see those bugs and viruses as negatives. Those are things that make them unique. And it is embracing those things that make you unique even if it makes others uncomfortable.

A question to finish for now: How is Monáe making a connection between the long histories of hygiene as a population control to the contemporary moment of humans as “dirty computers”?