What Does “Smart” Really Mean?

By Markus Giesler and Eileen Fischer


Why do companies, policy makers, and the media no longer say consumer, home, or family but, increasingly, smart consumer, smart home, or smart family? And what are the hidden meanings behind smart technology markets?

These are some of the questions that my Schulich colleague Eileen Fischer and I asked ourselves while working on a separate article that will soon appear in Hoffman and Novak's  GfK Market Intelligence Review special issue on IoT marketing. Here are our thoughts. 

The smart-ification of everything - the idea to make everything smarter through the use of networked technology - is undoubtedly one of the defining trends in recent time, and a phenomenon of interest to consumers, companies, policy makers, and the media. While it seems self-evident that the Internet of Things make our lives easier, better,  more advanced, and all-around smarter, we also need to talk about how the "smart" prefix is culturally constituted and what makes it resonate with our other beliefs and value systems.

In this post, we will unpack four domains that are increasingly referred to as "smart": consumers, homes, families, and societies. While there are many other domains such as the smart city or the smart hospital, we believe that these four domains illustrate what "smart" actually means in the marketplace today, how marketers can leverage these meanings, and how consumers can question them.

Smart Consumers: Trackers vs. Dreamers 

Our starting point is that "smart" doesn't merely mean better, faster, more advanced. Rather, "smart" refers to an entity's ability to resolve enduring contradictions between competing cultural ideals. Let's illustrate this idea by looking at the smart consumer. Many marketers in IoT and technology imagine the consumer today primarily as a computational actor, or as we like to refer to it, as a tracker. Sociologists have documented a growing trend in society whereby we feel the need to manage, measure, and optimize all aspects of our lives – energy use, health, eating, work, friendships, and even sleep, competitively, like an enterprise.

Yet, too much tracking can make us look like obsessed control freaks. Of equal importance, therefore, is another ideal of smart consumption: the dreamer – an individual who uses technology for enjoyment, recreation, and creative self-expression. But because too much dreaming makes us look silly and lost, for most consumers, smart consuming is an act of juggling the competing ideals of tracking and dreaming . AppleWatch users, for instance, can be observed to constantly go back and forth between optimization and distraction in an effort to create a smart consumption experience that minimizes the stigmas associated with each model, the optimal desired state for marketers should be an experience that allows consumers to combine tracking and dreaming , not one that emphasizes either one or the other.

Smart Homes: Gateway vs. Fortress

A similar dynamic of juggling between competing cultural models is at play in conversations around the smart home. August Lock or Amazon Key, for instance, no longer render the home as a private space but as a gateway that can be accessed and a place where consumers readily trade their privacy for the convenience of navigating a host of market actors - from Airbnb guests and dog walkers to delivery people and cleaning staff. However, this gateway model is only one side of the smart home.

The other is the enduring importance of the home as a fortress. Consumer researchers that have studied the conflict between access and ownership, for instance,, would render mythic idealizations of the home as a gateway as overly naïve and unrealistic. Companies believe that IoT will usher in a new era where entrenched boundaries between public and private quickly disappear. IoT, however, also enables consumers to erect new boundaries against marketplace intrusion. For this reason, we argue marketers of consumer IoT should understand the smart home neither as a gateway nor as a fortress but as a politically contested space in which consumers must constantly negotiate competing notions of access and ownership in ways that satisfy expectations for security, privacy and trust. Here is an example from this blog:

Trust Me… I’m Amazon!

Stranger danger! For most of us, hearing those two words together is enough to conjure up an image of a parent or teacher warning us not to trust people we don’t know. Based on this logic Amazon introduced Amazon Key last year in 37 metropolitan areas in the US.- In a nutshell, Amazon promoted this initiative on the basis that a well-functioning IoT camera and smart lock will give consumers extra convenience while also insuring safety. But according to a recent survey by technology news website Recode even among Amazon Prime subscribers, over half of respondents would “definitely not” buy Amazon Key. It seems, people simply aren’t open to the idea of allowing a stranger to enter their own home when they’re not around.

Trust Me … I’m Airbnb!

But wait… hasn’t someone else already proven that this isn’t true? Trusting strangers enough to let them into your home is the pillar upon which the immensely successful hospitality platform Airbnb was founded. Not so long ago, it would have been unfathomable that almost one million people would either be staying in someone else’s home or be welcoming someone into their home, each and every night. Now, this is quite common and considered normal.

Trustworthy by Design

Amazon chose a product-based approach, while Airbnb is dependent on selling trust. By promoting cloud cameras and smart locks as surveillance and security tools, Amazon Key largely re-tells ingrained “stranger danger” stories. Airbnb, in turn, approaches IoT as a sociological instrument – a means for rewriting the story of the home as a social space. Or as Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia put it: “Maybe the people that my childhood taught me to label as strangers were actually friends waiting to be discovered.” Airbnb approaches the home security dilemma from the stance that people are generally trustworthy, and everything on its website is geared towards this positive, market-enabling stance. Sure, if something does go wrong, homeowners and renters know they have back-office guarantees protecting them, but these are in the background for a reason: Airbnb wants people to know that you are a trustworthy human being, and so too are most of the people in the world. Designing an experience in which customers view delivery people not as strangers, but as decent human beings is something Amazon might want to learn from Airbnb. Even more important than technology, trust will be the key to opening doors for Amazon.

Source: Trust Me… I’m Amazon!


Smart Families: Social Collective vs. Unstable Alliance

The smart trend has also shaped marketers’ understanding of another important institution: the family. Family, according to technology marketers, is a decidedly romantic project in which social relationships are stable and technology operates like the proverbial camp fire that nurtures unprecedented levels of community and collective problem-solving. A related narrative profiles the sole individual (young and elderly) for whom devices such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa constitute surrogate family.

From a sociological experience design perspective, however, smart consumer technologies interact much more dynamically with what family researchers Amber Epp and Linda Price have called “identity bundles” – fragile and frequently changing assemblages of social actors and smart objects, each with their own interests, agendas, preferences and skill levels. As these technologies raise new questions about who controls (and can control) what, they can provoke not only social instabilities and conflicts but also feelings of imprisonment, exclusion and loneliness. We therefore encourage marketers to approach the smart family sociologically, not as a harmonious unity of individuals but as an inherently unstable and evolving social system in which everything is connected but nothing adds up.

Smart Society: Ayn Rand vs. the Welfare State

A final domain where smart has become an important trend is smart (read: post-social, post-political, and post-institutional) society. Silicon Valley elites often envision society like libertarian author Ayn Rand, as a collection of individual consumers who, equipped with knowledge, artificial intelligence, and smart technologies, will become increasingly independent from traditional social institutions such as schools and universities, hospitals, retirement homes, and even the police. A related trope that Ela Veresiu and Markus Giesler have observed is the optimistic veneration of technology as a powerful remedy to poverty, chronic illness, and global warming. One domain where the idea that technology and clean design can actually make life better for all also looms large is the smart city.

For example, companies promise that, in less developed economies, cloud cameras, diagnostic baby wristbands, and smart scales are an alternative to expensive medical infrastructure. However, these smart technologies not only empower less privileged parents. They also justify a problematic shift of social, economic and financial risks away from traditional social welfare institutions to individuals. By creating a shallow illusion of solidarity through connectivity, smart society can also occlude (rather than diminish) inequalities between rich and poor. For this reason, marketers should approach technology not as a replacement of, but rather, as a bridge to institutional care - and smart society never merely as a technologically networked utopia but rather as an effective blending of Ayn Rand-style entrepreneurialism and the welfare state.

Table: How is smart culturally coded in technology markets?


Managing "Smart" Technology Markets?

Marketers who bear the responsibility of helping introduce ever-more consumers to an ever-expanding range of smart technology need some critical distance from the seductive myths that have propelled these technologies in the popular imagination. This does not, however, mean rejecting one view in favor of another. Rather, it means embracing paradox: two opposing ideas or images of smart can both hold true. For example, when thinking of the “smart consumer,” marketers should leverage the potential that a given consumer can be both a tracker and a dreamer. Likewise, the “smart homes” in which these consumers live are likely to combine elements of the gateway and the fortress. The “smart families” in which consumers are embedded can be both social collectives and unstable alliances. And the societies they navigate will inevitably combine elements of libertarian and welfare state ideologies.  The myths we have itemized here are common, but far from exhaustive.  Our general messages it this: we encourage marketers to not simply question prevailing myths but to explore equally valid but opposing ones that may be less frequently circulated by promoters of new technologies. Marketers who see the antithesis in every social thesis about IoT technology will be best equipped to succeed in creating "smarter" IoT experiences.

Markus Giesler

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.