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Consumers who shun connected objects project themselves into “relationships” with the devices that are full of risk and danger, and not dissimilar to negative social roles – that’s the conclusion reached by three researchers,  Ilaria Querci, Luigi Monsurrò (UNIMORE) and Paolo Peverini (LUISS), who throw light on unsuspected facets of the resistance to innovation.

Have the companies that design smart devices or services – such as connected watches or televisions, personal assistants or virtual reality headsets – made them too “human”? This might well be what you think after reading this article, which shows that this human-like positioning may result in a sizeable boomerang effect.

Nice company or unnerving presence?

Giving an object a first name, assigning it a gender, equipping it with a voice and the ability to communicate with its owner – or empowering it to take initiatives – means venturing into terra incognita. Some users see these devices as agreeable company; others experience them as a troubling, sometimes hostile, presence.

The industry believes, however, that a “humanised” product increases consumer adoption. But that’s a mistake: the resistance can be very deep. In 2011, future-oriented research predicted that there would be 50 billion connected devices worldwide by 2020. And yet, in 2022 the figure still only stood at 14 billion. In other words, smart objects have had trouble getting off the ground.

An interpersonal relationship between owner and connected object

The researchers, specialists in the take-up of innovative technology, pinpointed three types of obstacle. These may be functional: the devices are complicated to use, are costly to maintain, and pose potential health risks, among other things. There are also psychological barriers: “Do I want an object to help rather than a human?” or “Is my day-to-day life really going to be improved?” Last but not least, these barriers are sometimes individual: some people prefer continuity over change.

The authors of the study present a further explanation: smart objects and services are so human-like that they create an interpersonal relationship with their owners. And, as in the real world, this intimacy may be a source of pleasure or a cause of fear – so much so that some people decide to shun them altogether.

To corroborate this proposition, the researchers carried out qualitative interviews with 33 adults aged 22 to 58 who do not use any connected objects. The research helped compare perceptions about four negative social roles: the captor, the master, the stalker and the seducer.

The fear of being dominated, affected or replaced

The first social role is the role of captor, which is apparent from the comments made by participants who voiced the fear that they would be dominated, or even brutalised, physically or psychologically. Connected devices were described symbolically as “hands” that control humans or, worse still, crush them. All this against the backdrop of the unstoppable, inevitable march of progress that is going to cut into individual freedoms and sentence us to live in isolation. Even though the internet is all around, we’re all “home alone”, surrounded by smart but potentially dreadful, diabolical devices.

The second social role is the role of master, epitomised by the fear that we will be replaced by machines and the feeling they’re so close by. A smartphone or PC are objects that are outside you, while a smartwatch is suffocating because it controls you. There aren’t really any boundaries between the device and the individual any more: it’s impossible to disconnect or keep hold of your privacy and freedom. The more tasks we hand over to technology, the more autonomy and control we lose.

The fear of being watched

The figure of the stalker, third social role, stood out clearly for participants, who were quick to say that smart objects watch them closely and collect a vast amount of information about them. This puts the devices in a position of power and means users are under surveillance. What’s more, the objects are seen as being omnipresent, mysterious spies: what happens to the data they harvest? Nobody knows. In addition, the devices themselves may be the target of IT attacks or be used to channel a never-ending stream of marketing campaigns. The feelings of this group of participants are reflected in the verbatim accounts summarised by the authors: This type of technology doesn’t give me any extra security; it lays me open to even more surveillance.

The fear of dependence and of social lives shrinking

The fourth social role is that of the seducer. Users recognise that connected devices boast such qualities – they’re practical and attractive, get things done and are sometimes fascinating – that they’re afraid they’ll become dependent, that their under-used mental powers will be diminished, and that their social lives will shrink. We’re losing some of the critical faculties we were obliged to develop in the past because technology makes them readily available. This could do serious damage.

The common denominator: distrust

These four roles illustrate one and the same feeling: a lack of trust. When participants pictured a captor or master, the connected object became the target of suspicion. With the stalker, this distrust targets the “system” that lies unseen behind the device, which mysteriously guzzles data. Last but not least, the role of seducer is testimony to the individual’s lack of confidence in themselves: they’re afraid they will end up becoming dependent.


This research will be of special interest to companies that sell connected devices or services, or that add smart functions to their products. The authors offer these firms two pieces of advice. First, they should focus less on the “human” aspects of certain functions, which can be double-edged. Secondly, they should showcase how users are given more power – activating or deactivating the service when they want, for example – or highlight the transparency in the way that data is collected.

Learn more

I. Querci, L. Monsurrò and P. Peverini, When anthropomorphism backfires: Anticipation of negative social roles as a source of resistance to smart object adoption, Technovation, April 2024. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.technovation.2024.102971