Understanding the Digital Payments Maelström


I am going to connect a few dots here that may seem a bit odd – so bear with me — but I’ve been living on the edge of (no, not sanity!) emerging digital payments and channels and staring into this rapidly changing space is both terrifying and sensational.

New players are emerging, new payment types are evolving, protocols are competing, new entrants are jostling, incumbents are bracing.. it’s all quite chaotic.  What will dominate, who will lead?  It’s like staring into an abyss and wondering what’s out there.  Who knows, all specific predictions will be wrong and the future will surprise us all.

The Payment as Medium

Marshall McLuhan famously reflected on the impact of media and technology on humanity and the role of technology in impacting the delivery of content.  He predicted the evolution of the world-wide web and semantic knowledge repositories (Wikipedia) and this was in 1962 a time when TV’s were still primarily black and white.  Yet his guidance still resonates today and I believe applies to all emerging technology including the evolution of digital payments.

How we pay is as important as the transaction itself; how we pay defines the experience.  The experience and the payment medium are intertwined.

Just as McLuhan saw the darkening of the clouds and the coming storm of communications media we can now see the clouds forming around digital payments.

Communications as a Reference for Payments

From paper printing press to radio and the spoken word to television to the internet, communications has changed profoundly in a short period of time and this has also changed us.  What if we are now in the “radio stage” of digital payments, what changes are still coming?

Understanding the Chaos

When faced with the unknown in the world of communications and media, McLuhan established “Laws of Media” which helped to assess the impact of media, and these four forces worked simultaneously and inevitably.  These forces are also relevant for emerging payments medium and provide a useful guideline when evaluating emerging payments:



The Tetrad approach provides a perspective on payments as a disruptive medium and a way to understand the interaction between this medium and incumbents.  Screening new entrants against these four rules and considering the interaction between payment types is at least a step toward organizing the discord and providing a body of work that can be employed to help anticipate the next wave of change in this space.






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