Digital Hygiene

I wrote an essay for Real Life Magazine on purity metaphors used in digital hygiene guides, and how the food justice movement can help us fight the industry of online data extraction. You can read the whole thing over at Real Life Magazine — I’ve included an excerpt below. Thanks for reading!

In September 2017, Firefox launched their “farm to browser” ad campaign on Instagram, partnering with influencers and food bloggers for a series of embedded posts that juxtapose sleek, luxury devices — MacBooks and iPhones, often encased in on-trend rose gold marble phone cases — with meals and ingredients associated with “clean eating”: kale, chia seeds, açai berries, avocado toast, charcoal lattes, and smoothie bowls. Videos on their own account feature smiling millennials holding handfuls of dirt, farm-raised chickens, and heads of lettuce. The campaign compares using Firefox to other values-based decisions, like buying organic fruits and vegetables, shopping at farmer’s markets, and practicing yoga. “So we don’t have organic heirloom tomatoes inside our code,” one caption reads. “We are the only major browser backed by a non-profit, though, and that matters.”

These posts are meant to highlight the fact that Firefox, unlike Chrome and other browsers, does not profit from selling your data, making them the more “ethical” choice for internet users. Providing this option, Firefox suggests, is just as important as the work that farmers do to provide free-range, chemical-free, local, organic, healthy food. Though not without humor, the message is clear: Your consumption habits matter, and you should think about your browsing habits the same way you would about the food you eat and the clothes you wear. Firefox wants to package their attention to data privacy together with other forms of ethical living, making data privacy issues recognizable and appealing through humor, Silicon Valley aesthetics, and a very familiar rhetoric of salvation through language of aspirational purification, self-improvement, and control.

Firefox is just one example of metabolic metaphors — food, dieting, and detoxing — used in data privacy guides and in advertising for internet services; once you notice, you find them everywhere. Google’s Digital Wellbeing toolkit offers features, tips, and dashboards for you to help “fine-tune your tech habits to achieve your personal digital wellbeing goals.” Media outlets from Forbes to the Dr. Oz Show offer month-long “technology diet” guides for their readers; news articles and opinion pieces regularly instruct and analyze the latest digital diets and social media detoxes. Digital Detox, LLC, a company that describes itself as “a slow-down and not a start-up,” sells device-free workshops, retreats, and happy hours for individuals and corporate teams across the United States.

Together, these guides and services promote what one might call personal data hygiene: a set of tools, habits, skill sets, technical knowledge, and digital literacy that constitute practices of a so-called healthy digital lifestyle. They encourage personal data hygiene affectively, linking browsing habits with certain feelings and structures of feeling. We have reason to be conscientious about our browsing habits: our personal information is susceptible to being leaked, and will almost certainly be sold to analytics companies in order to sell more things to us. But much like the health products they align themselves with, these campaigns promote an elite vision of purity that pathologizes individuals for the choices they do or don’t make — urging the user to keep themselves “clean,” while shifting attention and responsibility away from the systemic ways they are targeted for their data.

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