The Public Perception of IoT

Richard Gate - Technical Lead for ObjectSpectrum

February 1, 2022

This blog post came about as the result of a question to my wife. To be fair to her, she has never had any involvement in IT, so the answer was not unexpected. I asked, “Do you know what IoT means?” and her answer was “Idiots on Television?” One of my stepdaughters was with us at the time; she works in IT for a mechanical components manufacturer. I ask her the same question, and she replied that she didn’t know at all. This started me thinking about the public perception of IoT which has had (and will have) an increasing impact on our daily lives. Asking them both “But you know what the Internet is?” gave answers that indicated that they both did although to varying degrees. I then asked, “What about the stuff that turns the house lights on and off?” “Oh,” they said, “that’s Alexa.”

Is “IoT” just a technical term like “Ethernet Switch” or “TCP/IP” that few people outside of the industry know or care about, or is it that “The Internet” and “Alexa” and the like, just have better marketing? Personally, I believe both to be true to some extent. There is also the age-old issue that the advance of technology is always faster than anticipated, while the acceptance of technology is always slower. Take the example of old black and white science fiction movies. In those movies, people are wearing silver suits, traveling in rocket ships and personal bi-planes, and communicating on massive Buck Rodgers’ style tube radios. It turned out we all still drive cars and wear clothing that is not too dissimilar to clothing worn in the 1940’s, but the radio is now a chip in a hand-held device we all have and use every day. That’s why it’s so difficult to predict where technology will go and why we can’t really guess which technology terms will gain public acceptance and traction. So, there is no point in agonizing about “IoT” being used in place of “Alexa”, “Goggle Nest”, “Apple HomePod”, “Smart speakers”, or anything with the word “Smart” in its name.

There have been many studies about the impact of “IoT” on society from a technical point of view—in the home, medical applications, economic impacts, security, supply chains, smart cities, traffic control, manufacturing—you name it and there’s a study. But if you search for studies on how “IoT” is perceived in society, there is little written about it.

There was a study published by the IEEE in 2016, with the catchy title of “The Effect of Security, Privacy, Familiarity, and Trust on Users’ Attitudes Toward the Use of the IoT-Based Healthcare: The Mediation Role of Risk Perception”. Which, as the title notes, was concentrating on healthcare. It concluded that “security, privacy, and familiarity affect user trust in IoT”. The study’s conclusion also goes on to say that, regarding familiarity, “high-quality awareness programs to teach the public ways in which they could use IoT safely” should be used. While I can see this as being important in the medical realm, it sounds like the old attitude that “people should be more computer literate” rather than “computers should be more people literate” has come back to haunt us. Though, voice recognition is a move in the right direction.

Another study, also published in 2016 by a team pulled together from several US Universities, entitled “Mining Twitter to Assess the Public Perception of the ‘Internet of Things’”, used multiple Twitter sources, obtained between 2009 and 2015, validated by Google Trends and then analyzed to gain insights of the public’s perception. The study concluded that the public perception of IoT was mostly positive with business and technology being the main areas of interest, but with concerns expressed about privacy and security. They also noted that Tweets about IoT were not as popular as they had expected (though that study is a bit dated now).

So, in conclusion, the understanding of the public perception of IoT is limited by the number of studies and from the study’s conclusions that not many people know what it is. Most people who have any perception of IoT will mainly see it in terms of products rather than the IoT technology itself. A not unexpected outcome when you consider that consumer products have big marketing budgets for winning hearts and minds. Will this change? I don’t expect so.