Reputation Management by Kathleen Alcott
22nd Mar 2017
Alice Niemand had been working for the company two years when the young Hasidic man died, and it made her look at her things, the cashmere cardigans and the pebbled bathmats, and consider how she had earned the money to buy them. On a normal day, it was easy enough not to examine: she never went into a workplace, never talked to anyone who did the same job she did, never discussed aloud the clients whose reputations she had repaired, never shook their hands or heard their voices, these lawyers and dentists and PTA mothers with some angry review or mug shot to suppress. The man who was dead – 19, a boy really – had been the victim of sexual abuse by the Yeshiva teacher who had been Alice’s client. The boy had claimed to be his victim, she reminded herself, but then came another feeling, lower in her body, which seemed to ask, in the way it roiled: why would anyone claim that?
On the coast of California where the garnet had eroded to make the sand purple, and from a multi-coloured veranda in the New Orleans garden district, and in view of children pushing toy boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg, she had reviewed files summarising lives and careers and misdemeanours, had typed the stiff sentences that financed her comfortable life. Her parents were as impressed by her new place in the world as they were intimidated by the gifts she sent to their sagging split-level home in the middle of the country. What could they do with an iPad that they couldn’t do on their computer, the pauses between their thank yous said, what should they put on these asymmetrical walnut serving boards? Would she be visiting sometime? They were sorry to say they did not have the money to make it to New York. It was never mentioned that the cost of the things Alice sent could have easily covered the flights that would put the three of them in a room together.
Alice had bumped from one Craigslist apartment to the next in the years after college, making friends chiefly to learn from them, when to tilt the head in the course of flirtation, how to conduct oneself in an expensive restaurant, never telling anyone about her father’s job ringing up purchases of gas and Snickers, her mother’s meagre income selling Mary Kay cosmetics. She had visited the office, a hyper-colour portrait of Silicon Valley opulence, for three interviews and a training session. It was her last month in San Francisco and the last hiring period in which the company bothered to meet anyone in person.
A guy on a skateboard had careened down an aisle that separated two rows of desks, clipping the heels of the formal, uncomfortable shoes Alice wore, and she watched as he landed on an L-shaped couch and began to comment on a ping-pong game. To the right of a freestanding iron staircase nearby, a man jogging on a treadmill typed on a computer that hovered above it. “Casey prefers the running desk to the standing,” Alice’s tour guide explained, with a satisfied laugh that she understood she was meant to mimic. In the company kitchen, the snack foods, arranged by colour, sat up straight on transparent shelving. “There is such a thing,” she heard a departing tour leader say to a group of new IT personnel, “as a free lunch.”
All this forced irreverence aside, the company, it was quick to assert to the new writers in the all-glass conference room that day, had principles. They did not work with felons, or people found guilty of domestic abuse, or convicted sex offenders. Standing in front of a whiteboard, a tanned man in thin designer cotton spoke to Alice’s group with the wry twist of his mouth, his California upbringing apparent in every protracted syllable. “These people in general are, like, not dudes you want to be having dinner with. The good news, right, is you don’t have to. Our sales reps take care of that.” A titter unfolded in the room and the new hires leaned back in the ergonomic chairs. “You just deal with their files.” Ethan resembled some beautiful, off-limits older brother, tall and freckled, blessed with the demeanour of those who always seem just-roused from some luxurious sleep. In the afternoons, a dripping wetsuit could be seen hanging in his office. As he coached her on her first customer, Ethan brushed a light hand on her elbow. Together they giggled about the client’s sham company, which sold advertising space on magnets with the false promise of distribution in small towns. Cackling at its website’s “About Us” section, filled with dated stock photos of big-haired women before enormous computers – “Who could fall for this,” he had laughed – Ethan shot her a glance of unmetered approval. “You’re doing such a great job, by the way. It’s a little scary how fast you learn.” She was, she marvelled, mastering it quickly: all she had to do was write three hundred words, essays in miniature, that made her clients seem more impressive and decent than they were. By the surveys the customers filled out, Alice could immediately identify the people they saw themselves as being, and then she wrote that person into existence, her voice transforming accordingly. A person who listed scuba diving as a hobby was always an adventurer as well as a professional, and the individual who wrote “books, especially mysteries and crime”, an avid intellectual. She padded the pieces with SEO tags and handed them over to the web team, who situated links in places unknown to her, ultimately pushing the clients’ embarrassing or disturbing Google search results to page five or six. Gone were the variously threatening and pitiful voicemails they had left for their exes, gone the lawsuits involving unpaid child support.
There is no direct interfacing with the clients, Alice would say later, a thoughtful index finger on her cheek, when people asked about her job. This was the phrase she would use.
In the beginning, when the nature of the work was still novel, Alice had Googled each case assigned to her, read the Drunk in Public arrest report, the vicious Gawker article about the embezzlement or the affair with an intern. A few direct-deposit paycheques later, she ceased to do this, as it only added time to each job and diverted her thoughts as she tried to write the glib summaries of careers and personal achievements. Dedicated equally to his family as to his career, she would write, the dry introductory clauses coming to her automatically, so-and-so enjoys yachting with his two sons and traveling with his wife. After six months on the job, she could handle three cases each day, which roughly amounted to $1,600 per week and $75,000 a year, an amount that would have seemed improbable to her beforehand. One of the most admired minds in the world of litigation, she would write, Alan Nixon remains a dental health professional committed to both furthering his education and supporting his community. The balances on her student loans were vanishing, the recurrent nightmares of creditors gone from her sleep. It was the first time in her adult life that her talents had felt translatable, commodified, that she hadn’t smelled of the entrées carried three at a time on her forearm.
The Yeshiva teacher’s file had not given her much to begin with. She got those, sometimes, people who – despite having paid thousands of dollars for the service – could not be bothered to fill out the forms about their career, their hobbies, their philanthropic endowments. They provided only a birthday, a name. Dov Weberman supplied only the Yeshiva and its address. The anonymous supervisor she chatted with – the company had transferred Ethan, done away with traditional models of management, at least with regard to the freelance writers – advised Alice to write about the client’s place of work. This meant producing a great deal of filler and jamming his name into every other sentence, no matter the lingual acrobatics required. Dedicated to its students and the greater community alike, the Viznitz Yeshiva for Boys organises numerous events, the majority overseen by Dov Weberman, which enrich and educate. The Viznitz Yeshiva for Boys and Dov Weberman are known in the surrounding neighbourhood as bastions of Hasidic culture and faith.
After she read about the suicide in the paper, she could not help arranging the facts of it in the hyperbolic, humourless tone of the pieces she wrote for the company. A paedophile for more than 25 years, she thought, Dov Weberman takes intrepid measures to prevent any members of his community from exposing him. It was her mind’s way of inflicting punishment, keeping her from any moment of relief.
On a date with a man who asked the waitress too many questions about the wine, was it effervescent, was it biodynamic, she continued to compose. Particularly passionate about shy children, Dov Weberman first poses as a mentor to gain the trust of their families. “A sancerre sounds perfect,” she said. The rest of the evening felt like following another car, changing lanes and matching turn signals, but grasping nothing of the route itself. Her date was making a case against technology that afforded the user too many conveniences. He was talking about the shift in American philanthropic giving patterns, or about the term post-racial, or about his family’s summer home.
Although she could not remember much of what was said over dinner, or perhaps because of the guilt she felt about this, Alice agreed to a taxi back to his apartment and the sexual contract that entailed. It was the only respite she’d found from her obsession with the story, on her knees with her forearms flexed and hips raised as he moved behind her. These were the only minutes in which her thoughts slackened, and as she came, bucking him backwards, unrelated memories presented themselves in blithe procession: a Mexican bakery’s lights going on in the very early morning, a cat strolling through a damp Louisiana cemetery, a cutting board and washed spinach near an open window. He may as well have been faceless, but still she ran a hand across his collarbone, after, and spent six naked, unconscious hours in his company.
On the train home she felt ashamed in front of the commuters, who stood there with admirable posture, just-groomed and well-prepared for the work ahead of them. She hid behind her honey sunglasses, acutely aware of her own smell, the wine she hadn’t brushed from her teeth and the sex she hadn’t showered off. Dov Weberman employs numerous methods when manipulating a minor, including chaperoned trips to traditional bathhouses and one-on-one tutoring sessions. In the last six months, the company had let go of the majority of the writers and rehired new, outsourced talent under the guise of a different, nebulous group called AirCommunications. Her survival was the result of an exacting exam on company grammar and style, meant to weed out all but the unassailable among the writers. She had always enjoyed the space of a test, the clarity of the task, the time alone with her flexed and ready mind, and she had been among the few who passed.
Back in her apartment, she boiled water and ground coffee and set the stewing titanium French press near her laptop. By her standards, she was late to log in to the SharedWorkspace, but there was nobody appointed to notice; time existed only vis-à-vis the proof it had been filled. AirCommunications required she enable a productivity-monitoring app once she began writing, but until then her actions were not tracked. Unable to click on the queue of tasks that had filtered in overnight, paralysed by the sentences her guilt continued to write, she opened a window to compose an email to Ethan. Though he had long since worked as the writers’ supervisor, he favoured her and occasionally sent her special assignments. She still had his address with his real name attached, a piece of information he asked her never to share. Everyone else in AirCommunications’ SharedWorkspace knew him as Anakin, a Research and Development expert who occasionally surfaced to lead digital seminars.
Date: March 7, 2015 at 11:22am EST
Subject: client screening
Hi Ethan –
Long time, pal. How is everything in your new position? I miss you in “The Writer’s Room”.
Anyway, I’m writing for a slightly odd reason. A few months ago I had this client, Dov Weberman. He hadn’t been convicted of anything, but last week this 19-year-old kid, who claimed to have been sexually abused by Weberman, jumped off a bridge. I’m wondering if we can use this to start a conversation about company policy – maybe the rule about no convictions is not filter enough? Could we woodshed on a different type of screening? Given that you’re higher up and I’m just a freelancer, I thought going to you might be the right first step. What do you think?
All my best,
Date: March 7, 2015 at 11:57am EST
Subject: re: client screening
Long time, dude. Hope you’re doing well out there in New York!
Wow, that is a real bummer to read and I hear you 110% about how conflicted you must be feeling. I looked into the case and it seems like the sales reps did some pretty heavy vetting and just could not have predicted this, you know? He appeared to be someone very invested in his community who truly needed our product to repair his reputation, and because he was never even tried we had to assume he had been wronged. Unfortunately, I can’t help you out with moving this up bc I’m working in ideation now and don’t even have contact with that branch. Just remember you are a super talented writer and this company has really benefitted from your hard work.
Alice read and reread the email, looking each time for the encouraging support or helpful directive she knew it did not contain. Then she went back to the Times, refreshed the article about the boy who was gone. Looking at the news now was like watching a tide eat away at sand, revealing the things buried deeper; new facts and developments were integrated seamlessly, brought into the existing article, under the same headline, as though they had been there all along. Because she had read the article no fewer than five times, the new sentences stood out and waved to her, taunting her with a deepening sense of tragedy. The Times had expanded the paragraph about the traditional bathhouse, where the teacher had frequently taken the boy, to include the name and location. Now, the piece closed with an anecdote from that morning, in which a group of men had surrounded Weberman as he left his home to shield him from the small cluster of protesters as he made his way to work. The series of related photos had also multiplied, though the composition of most was similar – the silhouette of the same hat, the same box-shouldered coat, repeated, a crowd of men with their heads down and an army of hands raised to block the camera’s view. There remained just one photo of the boy, taken before the community had shunned him. He still wore the curls around his face, the yarmulke, the starched shirt: his face made a decent impression of a teenager’s, but the tone of his skin was blanched, the way he buttoned his lips an indication of adult worries. He had left Williamsburg shortly after he turned 18, ostensibly hoping that the scandal of his accusations would die down, that his parents and six siblings could resume their regular lives, that the low anonymous voices would stop calling, that the notes taped to their windows every morning would cease to appear. In the year following his disappearance from the community, he had washed dishes at an Olive Garden in Times Square, showed up early for every shift. He had also arrived with time to spare for his own suicide, strolled the Manhattan bridge for a full hour in the February dark before going over.
Alice had failed to attach to the idea of a God, but she was envious of anyone who could. The idea that the boy had been pushed from his faith and his family at once was with her like a bronchial infection, impossible to breathe around without discovering some new blockage. It was with this in mind, how he had given away his every ritual and belief, that Alice wrote the first public post.
Subj: Re-evaluating our Standards
Hi writers and editors:
Many of you may recall working on pieces for Dov Weberman, who purchased a package of 40 bios. Recently, a young man from Weberman’s orthodox community in Brooklyn, NY, took his own life after his accusations of sexual abuse by Weberman resulted in threats to him and his family. Weberman was never charged and thus screened as an approved client. I feel that something should change about the way we filter customers, and I wonder if we might all put our heads together and discuss a solution. Thanks in advance for putting some time towards this important issue.
All my best,
Re: Re-evaluating our Standards
That is so sad. I have been working as a writer for six months and have wondered the same thing on a couple occasions – could the company maybe turn down people with pending accusations against them, or implement a waiting period to see whether the accusations have been substantiated?
Re: Re-evaluating our Standards
Thanks for your input, team. At AirCommunications we truly value your insight and discerning judgment. Our customer service department does everything possible to screen our clientele, and will continue to do so.
This post has been closed to further comments by Supervisor.
The post was shut down in under 10 minutes, deleted in 12. She had watched it happen like a member of any audience, a viewer at home helpless to the outcome, someone who would later decide the ending had been inevitable. Soon another post appeared in the CommunityBoard, reminders about style and grammar, and banal responses and sub-responses filtered in by the handful. When it comes to parallelism, someone wrote. Alice closed her computer and crawled onto her made bed, the well-matched lilacs and greys, and she slept off most of the afternoon, the hand-tooled leather belt she wore around her waist pressing a welt there.
She opened her computer once more that evening, in the depressive haze that followed her nap, the screen the only source of light in her darkened bedroom. Nobody had emailed her directly, although a post about Shared Workspace etiquette did appear, and she scanned the veiled sentences for a clear judgment of her behaviour… Given the sensitive nature of our work… Clientele privacy is of utmost concern… Extensively trained sales representatives… Alice was back asleep in under an hour, and she dreamt of a nagging electronic buzz, the urgent tenor of it, coming from a device she couldn’t find and didn’t know she owned.
She did not have the chance to make the decision for herself. When she logged in the next day, partially out of habit and partially because she wanted to escort her anger somewhere relevant, she found no new posts, no tasks waiting in her queue. She refreshed it every few minutes for most of an hour, checking the news and social media in other tabs, feeling increasingly that each shallow breath she took was an effort pulled off at the last minute. Her apartment around her remained as beautiful as she had made it – the low periwinkle couch with splayed wooden legs and the spotless sheepskin beneath it, the spider plant she had trained to grow down an antique ladder – and she had never hated a place more, never wanted to leave as badly. She packed a bag with a panicked assortment of things, some face wipes and an extra sweater and a packet of dried apricots, and at the last minute she removed her phone and left it on the granite kitchen counter. There was nothing it could tell her, Alice thought, no email or text or weather alert or match from a dating app, that would change how she felt. She was not going anywhere in particular, and she would not need any directions to get there.
Before she even stepped onto the train, she realised that what she had told herself, that she had nowhere in mind, was not true. She knew first by which direction she chose, then by which line, then by the way she settled into her seat to wait out the long ride. She was sure when she when she emerged into the grey world and saw the families, the men dressed like all the other men and the women like all the other women, moving in united huddles down the sidewalks. She knew by the sound of the muttered Yiddish, by the sudden and foreign envy she felt for the wigs the women wore, those automatic signifiers of purity. They were probably not the women who had feigned ignorance when they heard what the boy said was done to his body, Alice told herself, the men who had surrounded Weberman to shield him from the press.
March in New York was confused – a bleached blue sky, a corrosive wind – and it felt to her not like a certain season, but the weather’s selfish refusal to decide on one. She skulked behind the families, made itchy by the thought that they had known the boy, spoken or refused to speak about him over the warmth of their crowded dinner tables. As she cut up to their side, they grouped automatically to the right or left, avoiding her as they would some broken glass. When she was past them she hurried along, feeling very much the foreigner she was there, her hair tangled and too long, her clothing of too many colours. In her town there had been Christmas pageants at her parents’ Lutheran church, pancake feeds to support the fire department each fall, spring carnivals where one-hit wonders performed to a slumped drunk audience, but these had been traditions that asked nothing of her. She had slipped out of that town as easily as a hand from a pocket. Her mother and father had been the only family she’d known, and they too had required little of Alice, had somehow failed to create an ineluctable bond or even a few private jokes that could be leaned on when necessary. In the eight years since she’d left home, her father had become one of those people who lurked around ancestry.com, and sometimes, without any attached commentary, he sent her links to a patch of people he suspected were their relatives, a bread-maker named Flossie or a Civil War veteran and his twin boys who had died of typhus. Clicking around there inspired very little in her, felt about as personal as a trip to the DMV, and because she could not determine the correct reply to these emails she did not respond at all.
The image of her parents, silent before their television, without a word or a look for the other, was the obverse of what she saw now on the street. As soon as she was past one family, she was upon another, all of them unbothered by the vicious weather, caught up in a conversation that had gone on for happy years. They were coming and going from every direction, milling through the iron gates of houses with plastic awnings, filling the crosswalks, their hands linked, their skin moon-pale and immaculate. She wanted to visit the places that had made up the boy’s life but realised she did not know how to get there; she had become that person whose knowledge of her city resided within her telephone. Alice fielded a question about an intersection to a young Hasidic mother of twins, but she produced no more than a vague southern wave before she scurried away.
A half an hour later, Alice was down by the water, resigned to the parts of the boy’s life she had not been able to see. The scent of the East River was never restorative – it smelled more like something fermenting, turning over and over in the sweat of not getting anywhere. Still, it was better sitting on this bench, in view of the rotting, mossy piles, than weaving through the mass of people who belonged to each other. She had found a relatively quiet place to consider where she would go next in order not to go home, and she was alone, save the presence of a man a few years younger. He stood 6ft behind her, blowing on his bare hands, pulling a sheepskin collar closer to his neck, scrutinising his phone and the water in equal measure. Her fingers had just begun to slacken, and her jaw had just let up its working, when the hat came into view.
It was the shape from all the news photos, the wide brim and the severe line of the top, and for a moment it was an inch from her toes. She expected the owner to follow, but he didn’t, and then she saw a gust filling the hat again, lifting one side of it. Alice had dressed badly, in layers that failed to keep the wind out, and she felt a certain fascination watching it, this thing also the victim of bad weather. Did she want the wind to die down, to let it rest, or to animate it more fully, bring it across the rocks and into the river? Alice let the thought go: her attention was divided now between the wobble of the flapping felt and the approaching sound of laboured breathing. The man was running in shallow steps, holding his coat closed, obviously pained by the exposure of his hair and scalp, his payots oscillating, still too far from the hat to save it from its path toward the water. The birthmark on his face was the red of strawberry juice. Alice gave him a mollifying flash of her palm, and she reached down and pinched.
When she rose she was aware of an internal pressure and warmth, something like one might feel when handing over an earnestly considered, long-planned and saved-for gift. She wanted to smile and hand the man this thing he needed, wanted to communicate that it had been no problem to help him in this way. She wanted to say that the silk lining was soothing to touch, that she could appreciate the craftsmanship and the good care he took of it. But she also needed him to nod and thank her, which she soon saw he could and would not. He was fixated on the hat in her hands, his eyes not moving from where her fingers held it. When she extended it towards him his hands flew up and his knees bent, and they did this several times, his dip becoming deeper in each frantic iteration. Her thoughts moved from disappointment to anger in a matter of seconds, and it did not feel like a choice, then, when she spoke.
“Oh, you can’t take it because I’ve touched it? You think I’ve poisoned the hat?” She knew, in fact, what his upbringing had told him not to do, which was to let his fingers meet hers, but she did not release her grip. She brought the hat to her chest, making it impossible for him to touch it without touching her.
He was leaning incrementally backward with his hands spread, sweat pearling on his bare forehead, looking like something hunted.
“What is it you think I am? What is it you think I’ve done to it? You ran after it but you won’t take it?” She kept rocking onto her front foot, bending then straightening her arm to offer then withdraw the hat. “I’m so impure that you can’t accept something I’ve saved for you? It would be better if it had flown into the East River? I’m so evil that I do not count as human? I am Alice. I am Alice Niemand, and I saved this fucking hat because I believed it would matter to you.” She had never heard vitriol in her own voice, never issued anything close to a speech, never admitted to hate, never let it exist outside the hours she mulled it over alone in bed. Alice was a woman who met deadlines, nodded when addressed, favoured solid colours, held doors for the elderly, relinquished her seat to the pregnant, allowed the men she slept with to adjust her however they wanted.
When she finally threw it – onto a strip of yellow grass, still patched with the last snow – behind him, when she watched him whirl around, she felt a schism in her body, a divorce of her anger from the rest of her. The rotten part that had blistered at the man was still there, but now it was observable, open to her own judgment. She did not notice the man who had lingered and watched them, his wingtips vintage and his neck tattooed with arrows, or see his face made joyful by the phone he held to his face. Her shame and shock carried her forward, up some blocks into a more trafficked area, where she poured herself into a cab.
At home, in the queen-sized bed whose softness felt undeserved, she saw herself on loop, taunting the man, ridiculing the only beliefs he knew, pitching the hat. She paused the memory to rehash his reaction, how her cruelty had hit his face, how he had eaten at his bottom lip and not known where to look. She saw the birthmark intensifying in colour. She ran circles around these details until finally an overheated sleep came, and it kept her 11 hours, through the sun’s decline and return.
When Alice woke, she could not remember the routine she was meant to follow, was unsure what the necessary steps for reacquainting herself with the world might be – did she need food, or a shower, or an in-person conversation with someone who claimed to know her? She was allowed no opportunity for assessment, because when she groped for her phone to check the time she saw a text from her last one-night stand. It was rare she reached out to these people and rarer she heard from them, so she was, for the millisecond of her ignorance, intrigued.
Personally, I think you look hot with those horns. You’re famous, Alice Niemand!
Imagining the ellipsis that would appear on his screen, she began her reply – To which horns do you – but as she did another part of her had already begun to answer the question. Alice typed her name into the search bar, she clicked the link, she watched the video.
Acquaintances who used the app had demonstrated it for her: it was always goofy, the mutual distortion of features a proof of bonding. Get close together! Add the nose of a pig! Swap your friend’s teeth and eyes for your own! Affix a clown’s bow tie, stamp the text of an exclusive joke, show the world your boundless, flexible, fun-loving self. Send it direct or make it public, make it evidence of your multi-coloured, multi-peopled, widely envied life. She had never considered it could be used this way, the mockery as vicious as the silliness was vital.
I AM ALICE NIEMAND!!!! says a pulsing banner of text, red then black then red. Over and over, her mouth unleashing the forked tongue of a snake. Her hand making a thwong every time she holds out the hat. The recursive sprouting of sallow horns from her head. The audio was incomplete but unaltered, I am Alice Niemand and I saved this fucking hat, I am Alice Niemand and I saved this fucking hat. 8,567,122 views. HIPSTER LOSES SHIT ON HASID.
Even she could see that the filters were so effective for how well they matched her as she truly was in that moment, the voice in a register that belonged to the deranged and schizophrenic, the glare unconcerned with the society on the periphery.
The email came a week later. She had not worked, and had no plans to work; she had not left, and had no desire to leave. Alice Niemand lay circumscribed by single socks, moisturisers, ossified tissues, spent jars of peanut butter, books begun and abandoned, blouses retrieved from the closet but never slipped on. When she tugged down the screen of her phone for the thousandth, passive time, as she lay in the foul, clotted smell of her bedsheets, the vibration of Ethan’s email made her sit up.
Hope it’s ok to write you over here on your personal email. I know that your queue has not been getting any tasks lately and I was wondering whether you had any interest in a special project! It’s for a friend of mine and I know he needs a really focused creative person who can write circles around the rest of us so I thought of you OF COURSE!
Basically the deal is he’s starting a new pharma-tech-pub company – there’s a lot of VC excitement over here in CA, and it seems like it’s really gonna take off. But he needs writers to really make it sing. The idea is you would write reports and reviews about new prescriptions, pulling from studies and testimonials the pharma company has provided you, to be positioned all over the place. Rate is def competitive. Let me know if this sounds good and I’ll put you in touch!
Alice swung her legs over the edge of the bed and curled her toes in the imported rug that lay clean on the floor. She was composing a reply in her head, striking the right tone – confident, grateful, capable – when her phone hummed with a bright note. In a manic fit the night prior, she had told herself that enough was enough, that she would no longer allow herself to fester, and ordered the things that would make her life recognisable to her. Now they had arrived in her foyer, the fresh produce and the lauded memoir and the sulfate-free shampoo, and they would keep her fed and clean for days. In the elevator down, she admired the light as it moved to illuminate each button, the cheerful two-part sound that meant arrival on the lowest floor. She had heard a great deal about the evils of modern technology, how its solutions were too focused on the individual, but Alice, for one, felt thankful for a world that let her stay exactly where she needed to be.