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Promissory Failures: How Consumer Health Technologies Build Value, Infrastructures and the Future in the Present


In 2007, Apple, Inc. released its first smartphone, the iPhone, which included a built-in accelerometer that continuously collected data on user movements. However, users were not invited to engage with data amassed by the accelerometer until 2014, when the company released “iOS Health,” now a standard feature of their devices that allows users to track their movement and other health metrics. What changed? In this dissertation, I situate this shift within the context, rise, and promises of consumer health technologies. I explore the social, economic, and technical conditions through which consumer health technologies become possible, valuable, and desirable, such that they proliferate.

Drawing on interviews with venture capitalists, angel investors, and founders and employees of digital health and wellness companies, as well as ethnographic observations of digital health and technology events in the San Francisco Bay Area, I trace the kinds of capital, ideologies, subjects, and infrastructures that both constitute and are constituted by these technologies and their futures. I first explore the consumer electronic infrastructure and financing strategies that I argue together make consumer health technologies possible and contend that speculation around future value is built into how capital is advanced in the present, which critically shapes these technologies’ trajectories. I then argue that, despite the failures and limitations of consumer health technologies, investors and founders consider these devices to be valuable because they assemble the infrastructure for a future by stabilizing ideas about how health should be known, collected, measured, practiced, and valued in ways that are increasingly hard to see. Lastly, I argue that consumer health technologies proliferate in part because consumers are being enrolled into the lifestyles and subjectivities through which these technologies make sense and feel self-evident. I contend that this enrollment creates a social infrastructure that secures value in future by inculcating subjects into the logics of a tracked life in the present. Overall, this dissertation reveals how assembling subjects and standardizing data streams circulates promissory value by laying the groundwork for a passively tracked future that assembles and secures life as an asset in the present.

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