Prezi’s chief asks, ‘Star Wars or Star Trek?’

by Todd Neff

Peter Árvai has made his name through a technology that helps people think more clearly. That, in turn, lets them present their thoughts more effectively. For us all to thrive in an era of skyrocketing automation, says Árvai, we sometimes need to take a step back. That is, we need to be thinking more clearly about the technology we’re rolling out.

Árvai is CEO of Prezi, which he co-founded in Budapest in 2009. The aim was to take a different tack on the slide presentation, a form dominated by a Microsoft product about which Internet pioneer Vint Cerf has quipped: “Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

Prezi’s 75 million users harness a cloud-based, visual storytelling framework that ultimately puts the speaker, rather than a presentation technology’s slavery to slide order, at the center of the story.

In no small way, Prezi is a reflection of Árvai’s worldview. He believes that technology can be a corrupting force or a beneficent one. It depends on people — more specifically, the roles people let technologies play in our collective narrative and how we respond, in turn, to our evolving place in a technology-centric world.

Boiled down, he says, we must choose between Star Wars and Star Trek.

The Star Wars vision, he says, is one “dominated by greed and economic gain,” and “a world where we’ve advanced technologically, but not as a society.”

The Star Trek vision, in contrast, is one in which “material problems have been solved, and society guides its citizens towards reaching their full potential.”

“In Star Trek, technology is used primarily for learning and discovering,” Árvai says.

In other words, it’s fear and loathing versus wise embrace. There are good reasons to be wary, he admits. “While automation and its ever-increasing efficiency is an exciting engineering challenge, it also opens the door to fear that human labor will become redundant and unemployment widespread. Dystopic pictures dominate the landscape.”

Dystopian art by Alex Andreev

But consider the benefits, Árvai urges. Not just in terms of eliminating the daily drudgery of driving cars in stop-and-go traffic, collecting garbage or filling out accounting ledgers. But also with respect to the free time these and other forms of automation will bring, which will “liberate people and inspire them to be creative and fuel the desire to explore.”

The stories we decide to make our own will play an outsize role in steering us to such a future, Árvai says — to the point that they can become “self-fulfilling prophecies.” That’s why the way we talk about the future matters so much, he adds.

“With the right vision, we’d be challenged to rethink productivity rather than fall for the cynicism of a technical dystopia,” Árvai says. “And if we choose to take on the challenge, creative activity is likely to be at the center of an economy where mundane tasks are automated and people have greater freedom to choose their occupations.”

So where does Star Trek start? With technology companies themselves. They themselves are still learning how to deal with the consequences of automation. Consider the role Facebook’s filtering algorithm played in the recent U.S. presidential election. It gave newsfeeds “what we like to see — rather than what we need to see,” inadvertently fencing off thought enclaves for the like-minded and limited the free exchange of ideas — comfortable and otherwise — upon which a working democracy so deeply depends. Facebook has since made changes — a good thing, Árvai argues.

“When design choices affect millions of people’s lives, we have to make our choices with a more holistic perspective in mind,” Árvai says.

Government also plays a role, in particular through education systems that foster creative thinking. Árvai considers creativity to be a skill to be learned rather than some mysterious innate reservoir a precious few may tap into. Job training for older workers displaced by automation is another key governmental role, he says. And the rule of law, one built on the bedrock of ethical codes, will always define the universe (so to speak) in which technology and people interact.

In Árvai’s view, we’ll dictate our own future through the stories we tell, the choices our technology companies make, and the governmental systems we build. For him, the direction is clear: “I vote: instead of making War, let’s go on a Trek.”

Péter Árvai is one of 40 masterminds slated for Brain Bar Budapest 2017. He’s part of a stellar lineup of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap to share insights with the more than 7,000 people attending this year’s festival. Discount tickets are available here.

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