Too smart to be good? The dark side of consumer-smart object relationship

May 21, 2020
Editorial Open Society
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Smart objects, such as smart speakers or smartwatches, are becoming part of consumer every-day life. The capacities of these devices to receive information from the environment, learn through data and interact with other objects and humans, give a lot of possibilities to the user. Despite some futuristic and sci-fi-like features of these devices, such as the ability to talk, the process of connecting our life to smart technologies is a current and tangible phenomenon. However, this process seems to be slower than it promised, and the diffusion of smart objects is facing some difficulties. But why?

Several models try to explain the process of resistance that consumer can have toward innovations and technology, even smart technologies. People can be reluctant due to reasons connected to their beliefs (so-called psychological barrier), their wish to maintain the status quo (so-called individual barrier) or the perception of significant changes (so-called functional barrier). But maybe other aspects have to be considered.

Anthropomorphising new technologies

Indeed, there are several characteristics of smart objects that makes them interesting, such as the capability to be anthropomorphized and interpreted as a social presence. Consumers already tended to personify computers twenty years ago. So, in a scenario in which a user can have a conversation with a device that offers customized services, the anthropomorphism and social presence topic should be carefully taken into account. Indeed, smart objects not only can be perceived as a presence, but they can interpret social roles, such as master, servant or partner. This social aspect should not surprise. In the first year after Amazon introduced Echo, its smart speaker embedded with Alexa, half a million users said “I love You” to Amazon personal assistant. But what about people that don’t own a smart object? Can they perceive a social role even before interacting with these devices?

Smart objects and Popular culture

In their ad, several times companies treat the object as a social actor (for example, a mother). In the cultural heritage, we can also see examples of technologies with social abilities, several times portrayed in a dark and negative form: in the movie “Her” there is an alienating relationship between a human and a virtual assistant; Hall 9000, the artificial intelligence of “2001: a space odyssey”, is considered one of the best villains in cinema. So, we have to consider that these examples can also be references that influence the perception of these devices, mostly when people don’t have actual experience with them. Also, we have to consider that people can be reluctant to start intimate relationships with other people. The social aspect of smart objects may elicit this reluctance even if we talk about technological devices. So, this social and relational side of smart objects may play a role when consumers resist to buy them.

A research into the relational aspects of smart objects

A qualitative study has been conducted on non-users to explore if the relational aspects of smart objects can build a barrier to their consumption. This research is going to be published as a contribution to the EMAC Annual Conference 2020.

From the results emerged that non-users can perceive several negative social roles regarding a smart object. It can be a stalker that observes users’ lives and exposes them to several dangers, such as hacker attacks or blackmails. It can be a captor that threats the users physically or psychologically, for example, depriving them of their parenting role or releasing radiations. It can also be an annoying master that can deliver emails, deadlines and task to users at every moment. Lastly, it can be a seducer, that attracts users with its useful and engaging features, and that makes them dependent on it.

The social aspect of smart objects is a fascinating one. It can make us feel into a science fiction movie, and can also be useful. However, at the same time, it can have a dark side, and, so, it has to be also considered in the resistance conversation. The relational approach can be useful to understand the way potential consumers see these devices. It is not only about the features themselves, but how these features impact the relationship that the consumer imagines with the device.

The results of the research also show a palette of issues managers should be aware of. Privacy is a primary concern about smart objects. However, according to these results, companies should carefully consider other matters, such as autonomy and physical safety. Also, in this study, the objects are not perceived as good partners, but as a threatening presence. Managers, therefore, should be cautious when they anthropomorphize the devices in their ad because this can lead to a negative perception of the object. Indeed, companies should be aware of the social roles that their devices can interpret because they can contribute to the resistance to the adoption.



The authors

Professor at Luiss Department of Business and Management and member of the Luiss X.ITE research center.


Paolo Peverini teaches communications and the language of new media at LUISS. He was recently appointed consulter to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication.


Sapienza University of Rome

Sapienza University of Rome