Captain Kirk and the
value of not working in
a (figurative) vacuum

Trek imageWe’ve come a long way since the 23rd century.

Back in those days, Captain Kirk’s “communicator” was nothing but a flip phone. Not only that. He used it to place voice calls, of all things. The ship’s computer answered to “Computer” and spoke in a monotone. Only in one episode did it sport a personality. The work of saboteurs, it was deemed a problem, if you can imagine.

One can only guess what Kirk would have given for a smartphone from three centuries earlier. No flipping the darned thing open, no knob to turn—just call out “Alexa” or “Hey Siri.” He’d have had instant access to humankind’s accumulated knowledge (who needs a ship’s computer?), delivered by a voice with at least something of a personality. He could have used it to shop. 

Best of all, he could have used it to better manage his Federation credits—his money.

That’s the problem with science fiction. The writers of “Star Trek” lived in the 1960s, when QWERTY keyboards accessing house-sized computers were cutting-edge. Magnetic tape had only begun to edge out punch cards. Gene Roddenberry et al had no basis to imagine portable devices, much less portable devices with touchscreens. And even if they had, leaping to voice-activated personal devices (obviating a ship’s computer), social media, and digital banking would have been too much to ask.

Yet the very inability to see into the future helps make today’s technological whirlwind all the more exciting. We cannot foresee what will launch next week, let alone next year, so there’s no anticipating the technologies that they may in turn make possible.

Not that foreseeing what will launch is the same as foreseeing what will catch on. Markets continue to surprise us. For instance, while marketers were sure QR codes would be the rage, consumers greeted them with a collective yawn; meanwhile, consumers are going nuts over fidget spinners, which no one saw coming.

Exciting or not, uncertainly can be expensive—and consequential. Financial institutions decide at their peril which technologies to invest in, which to ignore, and which to file under “keep an eye on this one just in case.” At the same time, bankers must carry on with the business of banking.

But now I must confess to having exaggerated.

It’s not true that “we cannot foresee what will launch next week, let alone next year.” Despite appearances, no technology is born overnight. There’s an inception period, a development period, a beta testing period, backing up and finessing, more beta testing, a market testing period, more backing up and more finessing and more testing, and finally, hopefully, a market release.

So while the outcomes of these processes may take markets unawares, those plugged into the process are never taken by surprise.

That’s one of many reasons it’s a good idea not to work in a vacuum—a figurative one, not Kirk’s vacuum of space—but to rub shoulders with outside fintech companies. Fiserv and others stay immersed in technological advances and keep close tabs on market developments. To do that would be a lot harder, perhaps impossible, if we were also trying to run a bank. Since we’re not, we can offer needful insights, perspectives, and products to those who are. (Full disclosure: I’m Fiserv’s Marketing Strategy & Innovation SVP.)

It goes both ways. We, too, know better than to work in a vacuum. That’s why we regularly partner with banks when we conduct studies. It’s why we share information with publications like The Financial Brand to help keep everyone abreast of what’s happening in this fast-changing world.

It’s a shame Kirk missed all that we’re doing these days. Imagine the innovations he could have brought back from the past to the 23rd century. Trouble is, his first and second trips back in time were, respectively, to the 1960s and the 1980s. If only he’d stuck around for a few decades.

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