Moral Panic - Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Two days earlier.
Paragon’s auditorium was a modern spectacle, hinting at the vast fortune the technology company had amassed since its inception. Hundreds of cushioned seats surrounded a small circular platform — a space reserved for the most important company presentations.

Tanner moved around off to the side of the stage working through the key points of his presentation in his mind. He shuffled through the darkness like a boxer, releasing nervous energy in preparation for his encounter with Paragon’s board and investors. His lithe, thin frame passed his weight smoothly from side to side, but his eyes remained locked in one place, deeply focused on the mental preparations he had made for his speech. His restless movements strained against the expensive button down and sports coat he was wearing. This energy was why Paragon paid him seven figures - he could work a crowd and communicate complex concepts clearly and simply.

While he waited, Tanner was being introduced by a woman from the human resources department. The auditorium was packed full with most of the coders working on Tanner’s team and dozens of extras he didn’t recognize. With the pressure and formality surrounding the event, he remembered his days of anonymity with a bit of nostalgia. Freedom is often the price of fame and fortune.

“Tanner has been with Paragon for eight years and, at 30, he has the distinction of being the youngest Chief Technology Officer in Paragon’s history. His atmospheric rise within the company could not have been predicted due to his humble upbringing, but during a platform-wide password breach which nearly destroyed consumer confidence in Paragon, he showed incredible poise and leadership to steer our technical team to safety by patching the issue and identifying the responsible hackers. He is currently leading the development of a reboot to the Paragon drone delivery platform; projected to make Paragon an additional $10 billion dollars in profit during Q1 of next year. It is my privilege to introduce, Tanner Moore.”

The woman started clapping. The audience followed suit. Peter Joyce, the CEO of Paragon, sat in the front row with crossed arms and a strained smiled as Tanner took the stage. Peter’s custom-made clothes did not fully hide his sagging physique, and he watched with twinges of envy as Tanner’s exuberance energized the crowd. Peter was surrounded by several of the most famous investors in Silicon Valley, including Diana Trellion, whose $10 Billion inheritance coupled with her youthful experience as an Internet socialite had made her one of the most well known technology investors in the country.

Tanner addressed the crowd using an expensive wireless microphone headset attached to the auditorium’s lavish sound system. His adrenaline had kicked in, but he wasn’t nervous. His slides were trendy, simple, and gratuitously well-designed, serving as a backdrop to the real focus of the presentation: Tanner.

“I’d like to tell you a story,” he began. “The story of us. The story of Paragon. We conquered the e-commerce world twenty years ago, bringing a level of convenience to the consumer they never could have dreamed of before. Ten years ago we merged with the most powerful social-media platform in the world, taking their user base under our wings to bring them all the entertainment and products they could possibly need. Last year we launched thousands of satellites to bring wireless connectivity to every inch of the globe, bringing the Internet to all 11 billion human beings.”

He paused for effect, surveying the crowd with the air of a modern conquistador.

“Humans had the stone age, the iron age, and the middle ages. I believe we are about to enter a new age. The age of convenience. Where you can have anything, anytime, anywhere.”

He clicked a button and the lights in the auditorium dimmed. A screen descended from the rafters as though it were the gift of fire being brought to man. An electronic orchestra performed an original composition by Paragon’s Artificially Intelligent Music Composer to accompany the scene, as the audience’s chairs reverberated with the rumbling bass.

Amy Noral sat in the back with a journalist’s look on her face. She peered around out of the sides of her eyes, bemused at the lavish spectacle. She was expecting to see similarly skeptical expressions, but many of the engineers surrounding her sat in reverent awe of Tanner’s command of the crowd.

A video was projected onto the screen showing five simultaneous demonstrations as Tanner stood in each segment of the screen in very different environments: Next to a stone statue on Easter Island. On top of Pikes Peak outside of Colorado Springs. At sea on a Paragon cruise ship. In the middle of Times Square in New York City with thousands of people buzzing around him. The fifth was a live feed of Tanner standing at the side of the auditorium.

His voice boomed over the droning music narrating the action of the video, “We went everywhere around the world to test our delivery system. If you want Paragon Sunscreen on Pikes Peak, we can get it to you. If you want a Paragon Safety Blanket on Easter Island, we can get it to you. If you forgot your Paragon Toothbrush on your cruise, we can get it to you. If you want a Paragon Beverage in the middle of Times Square, we can get it to you.”

Each of his avatars within the video pressed a few buttons on their phones. The video feed switched to footage of five different sexta-copter drones inside Paragon’s delivery bay. The belts and conveyors of the machine delivery system were beautifully orchestrated and the drones flew away with their products in symphonic automation.

Within the video each of Tanner’s avatars received their products as a high-pitched buzzing sound was heard within the auditorium.

From the same dark space where the screen had emerged, a delivery drone carried a bottle of Paragon Champagne down to Tanner.

The crowd’s raucous vigor overwhelmed the buzz of the drone as Tanner’s voice rose to pacify their energy and continue his presentation.

“With this system our entire drone delivery fleet has been automated and synchronized with our mechanized warehouses, meaning we will have no reason to hire drone pilots or stock room workers. From a financial standpoint this will increase our productivity by 20% generating $10 Billion dollars in additional quarterly profit. The drones have been dialed in with the most precise GPS location tracking system ever developed, and thanks to Paragon’s sophisticated GIS, we can deliver anything you want, anywhere you are. We’ve run 20,000 of these types of deliveries with a 99% success rate, and we plan on rolling this out to the public next week.

“I invite you to imagine the possibilities. Imagine the level of relief we can bring to lives touched by natural disasters. Imagine the suffering we can prevent by delivering food to all people around the globe. Imagine a future where we can solve all of humanity’s needs, by providing them with anything they could possibly want. I want to thank every engineer, manager, secretary, janitor, and intern in my department. You have all provided instrumental help in the development of this system. I want to thank Peter Joyce for giving us the support we needed to continue on this project. Even when the media was skeptical and our investors thought it was an impossible waste of money, he always believed in my vision.

“I hope you all enjoyed the demonstration and now I need to finish this thing so I can start sleeping again.”

Laughs and a standing ovation followed Tanner off the stage. He dissolved into the back room, being greeted with friendly looks and firm handshakes by everyone he came across.

Peter Joyce remained seated, clapping with moderate enthusiasm amidst the thunderous outpouring of admiration directed towards his young colleague. He shot glances at the board members standing around him, shaking their heads with inspired adulation at Tanner’s short, yet powerful performance. An older investor approached him to shake Peter’s hand and give him a friendly ribbing.

“Watch out for that one Peter, I haven’t seen a presentation like that since you were his age.” The man’s jovial tone did not assuage Peter’s insecurity. He mustered a muted smile and firm handshake, but sat there thinking for several minutes as the room cleared.

Amy was the first one out of the auditorium. She walked with quick purpose to the main foyer where a sizable group had gathered to celebrate with Tanner. She had arranged an interview with him, but was certain he would forget about it after the excitement of the presentation. The natural light showering through the glass ceiling of the grand building cascaded through the hall as she elbowed her way closer to him. Tanner was hugging the inner circle members of his team, buzzing with adrenaline and pride.

“Not bad Jay, I thought for a minute you’d scrape up the screen.”

“I haven’t crashed a drone since you lost your virginity. There was a better chance of you tripping over your fancy shoes than me hitting anything.”

Tanner laughed. “I don’t trip, I’m like a matador, dodging the bull.”

He ducked and dodged, throwing a few playful punches into Jay’s stomach to the amusement of the surrounding group. Jay struggled to protect himself from Tanner’s barrage, still holding the drone that had just delivered the champagne to Tanner with a remote control in the other hand.

Amy tapped Tanner on the shoulder to interrupt the celebration.

“A little smoke and mirrors for the audience?” Amy said, smirking at the drone Jay was holding. “Isn’t that false advertising or something?”

Tanner’s smile was only slightly deflated as he turned to her, remembering their interview. He was still performing for the group as he responded to her. “It’s called showmanship Amy. It would be a disservice to the perspiration of my team if I didn’t present the fruits of their labor with the necessary energy.”

“How long did it take you to write that line?” Amy asked. “I could run you through a quick writing seminar before our interview if you need.”

“No thanks, I’ve read your work,” Tanner said with a wry smile. “Okay people nothing to see here, go back to work. I must battle this media harpy on my own.”

Amy and Tanner pushed through the smiling crowd into the spacious white hallway where his office was. The eyes of the crowd lingered on them as they walked away. Amy had been pestering him to give her an interview for months, pulling every friend card she could muster from their time at Stanford together.

“Media harpy? Then what does that make you?” She lashed with typical sass. “A shining white knight battling for Paragon’s honor?”

Tanner’s eyes lit up hinting at some charm, “Oh I like that, let’s go with that image for the interview. Can your graphics team do some type of C.G.I. thing to make it look like I’m wearing armor?”

“Not a chance chump,” she said, shaking her head as they walked through the door to his office.

Her casual appearance clashed a bit with Tanner’s fitted suit; no tie. She wore a white hoody with trendy sunglasses, tight fitting jeans, and a beanie she had knit herself. Her shoes were up-cycled sneakers made from the millions of plastic bottles collected and reused during the “Great Clean-Up”.

Tanner sat down at his desk as she closed the door and took a seat across from him. He was grinning ear to ear.

“So what’d you think of that?”

“You’re quite the showman, that’s for sure. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you had your lackeys in the wings. It was impressive even without the fake indoor delivery. I don’t think you needed it.”

“And that’s why I’m sitting here and you’re sitting there,” he said holding his arms wide in triumphant cockiness. “People want to be in awe, they want something that gets them excited.”

Amy turned on her audio recording device and set it on his desk, shaking her head with friendly resistance. Her confident skepticism draped itself over her well-postured shoulders as she pulled out a tablet to take notes with.

Tanner set his phone face up on his desk as she got prepared. The screen flickered, and he checked it to see if he had any messages. Nothing showed up so he ignored it, leaning back and crossing his legs comfortably.

Amy clicked on the recorder. “So is that how you see yourself at the company?” Amy asked. “The great motivator?”

“Teams need inspiration to do great things, and I think it’s clear we’re doing great things here. There’s your headline, ‘Great guy at great company does great things.’”

“Greatness is about a lot more than selling products, Tanner. You briefly mentioned the automation, but you didn’t list how many jobs would be lost because of it. Who’s going to buy your products if the public doesn’t have any money to buy them with?”

“There’s a ton of opportunity on the supply side of things. We partner with millions of excellent small businesses who sell their products through our supply chain and many of them are doing very well. People need to show some creativity and put in some hard work if they want to make a living in the future.”

“I’ve read you take 60% of the revenue made from those transactions. Is that true?”

Tanner paused and winced a bit at that number and the accusations of monopolistic behavior it engendered. “I can’t confirm or deny that...”

“So how many jobs are you going to be able to cut thanks to the new automation?”

Tanner crossed his arms, pausing for a moment to break up the flow of the conversation. “Amy, what are you doing?”

“I’m conducting an interview, Tanner. What are you doing?”

“I thought we agreed this would be a fluff piece. I just want to get my face out there for some good publicity.”

“I didn’t come all the way down here just to pad your ego. There are enough fanboys out there doing that already.”

He leaned across his desk to hit ‘stop’ on the recording device.

“The jobs are a pretty sore subject, so can we just talk about something else?”

“Like what?” Amy said. “How about Paragon’s lobbying budget in Washington last year, what was it, five billion dollars? What did you guys get for that money?”

“Oh, grow up Amy. How the hell would anything get done if we didn’t grease the wheels?”

“It’s corruption.”

“No, that’s life. That’s how it works. We want to do something, politicians feign like they don’t want us to do it, we give them money to make sure they get re-elected, and they agree to make some adjustments that benefit everybody.”

“It doesn’t benefit the people.”

“Yes it does. People vote for us everyday with their wallets. Where’d you get that recording device? Where’d you get those sunglasses? How can you afford them? It’s because of us! People rag on capitalism using the communication products created by that system without ever seeing the irony of doing so. If they cared that much they wouldn’t buy from us, but they don’t care, so what does it matter?”

“Leave the questions to me Tanner,” Amy retorted.

Tanner raised his eyebrows. “Come on Amy, this doesn’t have to be so confrontational.”

Her eyes narrowed, “Did any of that lobbying money go towards lifting the ban on direct to location drone delivery? It was illegal a few years ago, right?”

“Amy, most government officials are over the age of 60. They barely know how to use the Internet, let alone govern it. They’re terrified of change so we have to make sure they know what’s good for them. We basically have a team of policy writers working in Washington who may as well be on our payroll. Paragon’s been deciding what’s legal since long before I started working here.”

“How many drone crashes were there last year, 3,000?” Amy asked.

“Out of three million deliveries,” he said defensively, unsure of how to pivot away from the negative questions.

“And somehow the government was liable for those crashes?”

“You’d have to talk to Peter about that,” Tanner said, shaking his head.

“So explain to me how taxpayers were on the hook for the $300 million to settle those cases. How did that not come back to Paragon?”

“I don’t know, okay? I agree with you: it’s all messed up, Paragon does bad stuff sometimes, but I’m not the one making those decisions. So what the hell am I supposed to do? If I were CEO, maybe I’d have some more power, but until then those are questions for Peter.”

She shook her head. “Let’s just get back to the interview okay?”

Tanner pressed ‘record’ again on the audio device and leaned back in his chair.
“Go ahead.”


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