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20 Things That Kept Us Up at Night in 2018

From deepfakes to the technocratic Deep State, this was an extremely anxiety-riddled year

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Hawk Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885876aa)Malcolm McDowellA Clockwork Orange - 1971Director: Stanley KubrickWarner Bros/Hawk FilmsBRITAINScene StillDrugsScifiL'Orange mécanique

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If 2017 was the year of anger, 2018 will likely go down as the year of anxiety. This was the year when countless dystopian “what if”s came true. What if Donald Trump is amoral enough to lock kids in cages? (He is.) What if mobile apps are tracking your physical movement? (They are.) What if the school shooting epidemic is getting progressively worse? (It is.) What if the QAnon crazies never log off? (They won’t.) What if you’re the only one who didn’t like A Star Is Born? (Oh boy.) As we wind down this year and prepare for 2019 — with a market crash looming and an ugly new presidential election already rearing its head — we’re taking a look back at 20 things that caused us palpable anxiety over the past 12 months. Maybe getting it out of our system will help?

Being sucked out of airplanes at 30,000 feet
Before 2018, commercial air travel nightmares were frequently all-or-nothing disasters. Either everybody dies in a fiery wreck or you all survive the turbulence and grumble. But in the spring of 2018, the horror of getting sucked out of a plane mid-air manifested itself twice. On a Southwest flight in April, a woman died tragically after shrapnel from a failing engine shattered her window, causing cabin pressure to plummet, oxygen masks to drop and, as several reports described the incident, “sucking her out” as far as her waist. The passenger next to her pulled her back in, but she died from her injuries. A month later, a co-pilot on China’s Sichuan Airlines survived after being “sucked halfway out” of the cockpit when a windshield blew out.  —Andrea Marks

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.Senate Judiciary Committee Brett Kavanaugh nomination hearing, Washington DC, USA - 27 Sep 2018

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Brett Kavanaugh’s face during the confirmation hearings
If an eight-year-old boy spoke to you the way Brett Kavanaugh spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27th, you wouldn’t let him decide what to eat for dessert, much less what women can do with their bodies, whether voting districts can be redrawn or who can and can’t enter the United States. After the dignified, harrowing and devastatingly polite testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Kavanaugh of attempting to sexually assault her in high school, President Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee took the mic looking like a sentient angry emoji. He narrowed his eyes and crinkled his nose and pursed his lips so tightly they nearly disappeared from his face. He spat his words. He gulped down water (perhaps wishing it were beer?) to keep himself from crying. He proudly declared of his opening statement, “I wrote it myself,” as if he were holding up a macaroni-art portrait of grandma. Brett Kavanaugh, sniveling coward, is now a Supreme Court Justice. I think of his face that day — so full of rage and fear — firm in the knowledge that it lurks behind the civilized mask so many powerful men wear in public. The notion is as frightening as it is depressing. But it is also something of a gift. Entitlement has never looked so ugly. Power has never looked so fragile. —Maria Fontoura

Here come the deepfakes
If you’re sleeping too well these days, it’s because the word “deepfake” — the concept of superimposing and doctoring artificial images and sounds over actual video footage — hasn’t yet reached the mainstream. That’s about to change. What started as a new way for exceptionally horny guys to place a celebrity’s face over a porn star’s body made its way to the White House in November, when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders posted a doctored video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s interaction with President Trump to make his harmless microphone joust with an intern appear more menacing than it was. Regardless of your political persuasion, deepfakes may be the next frontier of cleaving the populace and creating alternate realities based on (mis)perception. (Did your favorite candidate or hated political enemy really say that just because it looks and sounds like they did?) Video used to be the great “I don’t believe it unless I see it” equalizer we all could agreed on; not anymore. —Jason Newman

Twitter’s inexplicably adorable icon accompaniment to the #MeToo hashtag
Seriously, the only thing worse than an unrelenting news cycle of harassment, misconduct and deception might just be a cutesified pink avatar of it. —Amy X. Wang

Mass shooting live streams from inside the schools
The haunting black-and-white surveillance footage of the two killers stalking about Columbine High School in 1999 doesn’t hold a candle to what we saw broadcast live on Valentine’s Day of this year. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre unfolded live via social media, complete with captions like “Omg nooo” and “Our fucking school is getting shot up.” Seeing a mass shooting through the eyes of children provided a sickening, yet necessary virtual reality experience for a culture intoxicated by guns and their power. The student survivors went on to create a movement that has the NRA on its heels, but perhaps nothing was more important than the citizen journalists behind those phones, having the presence of mind to show us what could have been their very last moments. —Jamil Smith

Commuters ride in a subway during the morning rush hour, in New YorkDaily Life, New York, USA - 15 Nov 2018

Photo credit: Wong Maye-E/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Literally just trying to get to work on the subway
It’s one of the finest public transit systems on earth, operating 24 hours per day across nearly 700 miles of track for a democratizing flat rate that will take you from the Bronx to Brighton Beach. But in 2018, the New York City subway devolved into a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Trains reached their destinations a pathetic 66 percent of the time due to recurring signal malfunctions, “traffic,” flooding, fires and accidentally activated brakes. Things fall apart; the MTA cannot hold — but the thing is … it could. All it would take is for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fully assume responsibility for the crippling decay and allocate the necessary funds for full modernization. You may recall the arrival of new MTA president Andy Byford via fawning profiles by 60 Minutes and the New Yorker, complete with accounts of the optimistic problem-solver picking up trash with his bare hands. But the daily commute for some 5 million people remains a primal source of anxiety, leaving riders late for flights, job interviews, medical appointments, jury duty, parole hearings. All the while, Cuomo smiles on, having coasted to reelection, occasionally donning an embroidered jacket to hop down on the tracks for a photo-op. That is, when he’s not diverting money away from the subway to subsidize upstate ski resorts.John Hendrickson

Is climate change to blame for our declining mental health?
While anyone who believes in basic environmental science was rightfully horrified by this year’s climate reporting, much of the information wasn’t really anything new. People tend to push these thoughts toward the back of their mind — Donald Trump is the president, fascism is on the rise — but psychic numbing failed us and people finally felt the direness of the ecological situation this year. Yet climate change, as the military argues, is merely a “threat multiplier” looming over other environmental crises like the sixth mass extinction, which scientists have noted can be just as bad for the planet as global warming. Few have contemplated the effects of this on our mental health. Our minds and language developed while living in reciprocity with the natural world in order to assist with taxonomic needs of hunter-gatherer cultures — properly butchering kills, identifying plants and even providing a mnemonic map of the wilderness, as in the Dreamtime songlines of the Australian Aborigines. As we continue to obliterate the more-than-human world, we are quite possibly destroying the basis of human intelligence itself. As the ecological philosopher David Abram has so eloquently put it: “We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” Sadly, we still have the Internet. —Rick Carp

Are we going to hell for using plastic straws?
I drink a lot of iced coffee, which involves the use of a plastic straw 100 percent of the time. This year we were reminded that these straws are too small to recycle and that we should probably be making some sort of effort to stop using them so much. This hasn’t really happened. I don’t have room in my pockets for an aluminum eco-tube in a beechwood case with a fancy pipe cleaner, a $28 alternative recently suggested by the New York Times. But now whenever I unsheathe a plastic straw and stab it through my coffee lid, I feel a slight pang of guilt. How many straws have I used in my life? Hundreds? Thousands? Enough to fill a bathtub? Is a bathtub worth of my straws floating in the middle of the north Atlantic right now? Maybe a seal is dead because I’m an asshole who has to have his cold brew. This is troubling enough to give me about 30 seconds of low-frequency anxiety every morning, but not quite enough to turn me into the type of person who doesn’t leave the house without a reusable straw made of bamboo. Sea mammals, I’m sorry. Just know that I’m thinking of you. Maybe in 2019. —Ryan Bort

Pete Davidson, Ariana Grande. Comedian Pete Davidson, left, and fiancee singer Ariana Grande arrive at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall, in New York2018 MTV Video Music Awards - Arrivals, New York, USA - 20 Aug 2018

Photo credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s matching 9/11 tattoos
Like you, I grew to not only love but genuinely root for Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s quick relationship-to-engagement turnaround. The more I saw posts of Davidson calling Grande his “spumoni princess,” or her thirst-commenting on his magazine profile portraits, the more I began to hope that this peak millennial-Gen Z cusp couple would spend the rest of their lives together. But the moment Grande got a tattoo to commemorate Davidson’s firefighter father who died in 9/11 gave me a serious dose of “ooh girl, slow down.” It’s a sweet gesture, in theory — Davidson’s dad’s badge number “8418” written in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it script on the top of her foot — and it matches the one Davidson already has on his forearm. Still, that type of permanent branding of your partner’s trauma so few months in still felt cringe-y, and of course they broke up a couple months later. Even so, the duo’s dedication to loving each other in the fullest, biggest, most public and extreme ways, if only for the summer and change, was a glimmer of hope this year and led to Grande’s best music of her career. —Brittany Spanos

That OTHER breakup
It started with a DM slide, and ended by going Instagram Live. SoundCloud face-tatted rapper Lil Xan’s public breakup with Miley Cyrus’ little sister, Noah, took me on an emotional roller coaster. Because, really, when you read the headline “Lil Xan Denies He Broke up with Noah Cyrus Over Charlie Puth” it’s all downhill from there. First, you scan Noah’s agram. Watch her story. Read her tweets. Then, frantically, before anything can be deleted, you hop on over to Xan’s social media. Maybe even check a few fan accounts. You’re piecing together all the clues, screenshots, comments, deleted photos, like you’re Mark Ruffalo solving the Zodiac case. Noah says,“I’m heartbroken and confused. This is the meme I sent Diego that made him think I’m cheating.” Xan says “If y’all think that meme is the reason I broke up with Noah, that is hilarious.” What is the truth? Hours of social media detective work left me with no answers. Only a cramp in my scrolling hand, a dying phone and, a few days later, the official music video for their single “Live or Die.” —Daniela Tijerina

Does George R.R. Martin have pages?
For the past year, when I think about George RR Martin never completing his opus, A Song of Fire and Ice, I’m nearly overcome with disappointment and a creeping frustration. Like millions of fans, I’ve spent countless hours with the books and have devotedly watched Game of Thrones on HBO. When, during the last two seasons, the show forged ahead and the decidedly non-Martin writers changed crucial plot points, I wondered how the two competing narratives could reconcile, especially at the conclusion. Nevertheless, I stayed loyal. But now the horror has set in: GOT will end next year and the remaining two books still have no set publication date. What if the endings are completely different? What if one, or both, are massive let-downs? There are millions of us out there worrying about a slightly overweight 70-year old man and his writing habits. Is he truly committed to this cause? Why would he publish a massive history of Westeros before finishing the damn series? Years ago, when fans first began to complain about Martin’s glacial pace, the author Neil Gaiman famously said to the enraged obsessives, “George RR Martin is not your bitch.” Fair enough. But I’ve stared at the family trees of the royal families of Westeros, for longer than any sane adult should be willing to admit. My god, all those hours of my life and it may just fade to black. Or what if he just never finishes? —Sean Woods

US entertainer Kanye West (R) shows a cell phone depicting the image of an aircraft to US President Donald J. Trump (L) during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 11 October 2018. Kanye West, who is a Trump supporter, met with the President to discuss prison reform and other issues.US President Donald J. Trump meets with US entertainer Kanye West and retired football player Jim Brown, Washington, USA - 11 Oct 2018

Photo credit: Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Did I waste years of my life being a Kanye fan?
It’s not so much that Kanye West’s politics pivoted to “problematic” in 2018; it’s more that to call his empty provocations “politics” is giving them too much credit. Kanye spent the year spewing upsetting, incomprehensible things that honestly weren’t really worthy of our arguments against them, and it called into question how much time I’ve spent thinking about the Chicago rapper in my life. I’ve pored over his albums, drawn thematic links, read every interview. Was a guy who is arguing, opaquely, that slavery was a choice, really worth that time? I’m of the mind that meaning in art is up to the listener — whatever meaning you can wring out of a song, an album, a career is yours, regardless of the artist’s intent — so the time I spent engulfed in Kanye’s work was loosely the point; the journey not the destination, etc. But it gave me pause, this year, to think that back in 2003, I could have simply picked someone else to follow so closely, and I may have been better off doing so. —Brendan Klinkenberg

All those people who complain about “too much music”
Anxiety is an inherent part of streaming. Musicians don’t get paid enough, algorithms are replacing tastemakers and playlists are giving rise to a homogenization of genre. Those claims are fair, but dwarfed when compared to the growing disdain for the entire reason for streaming’s existence. For years, listeners demanded the illusion of unending choice, while secretly craving the comfort of less. Now the rising complaints against the sheer mass of music match the number of songs uploaded to the ether every day. At some point, I refused to get mad. There’s an understated relief in knowing you can walk away. Listening,to 40-plus song albums meant to game streaming platforms? Nope. Wading through a rapper’s fourth cobbled-together mixtape of the year? I’m good, beloved. There isn’t more music than ever, just increasingly efficient ways to deliver horrible music non-stop. Respecting your time is an act of resistance, too. —Charles Holmes

Why did I pay money to watch a pregnant woman step on a nail?
Surprisingly, I was able to handle most of A Quiet Place, the post-apocalyptic horror film about a family battling sonic-hearing aliens. Since many of the film’s scenes are silent, watching it in a large, dark space was actually kind of a soothing exercise. The children play a tranquil game of Monopoly (before it catches on fire) and a bearded John Krasinski serenades his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” (even though their youngest child just died). How relaxing! Then Blunt’s character Evelyn goes into labor and steps barefoot onto a loose nail. She stifles a scream with her hands, even though it’s too late: one of the monsters has already entered her home. Watching her lift her foot up from out of the nail so she can hide is the ultimate ripping-the-band-aid-off moment, and it almost made me walk out of the theater. —Angie Martoccio

Gmail is definitely reading everything
As part of an August redesign, Google finally acknowledged that its Gmail platform reads every single email you send and receive, introducing suggested responses that you can select with one click. Sometimes the responses are comically off-base, like suggesting you respond “Unfortunately, I can’t” to a long, detailed email full of instructions from your boss that just happens to start with the phrase “Can you…” but sometimes they’re creepily, annoyingly spot on. I refuse to use these suggested responses because I don’t want to help train an algorithm to replace me and speed up the inevitable AI takeover — and because I feel oddly defensive about the fact that I can type, “Great, thanks!” all by myself, thank you very much — but I still get a little shudder every time they guess right. —Lilly Dancyger

The blue light special
There are days when the Trump presidency feels like one giant Pavlovian trial — and we’re the dogs. Pavlov used a bell to trigger his canine test subjects; for me, it’s the breaking news alert on my phone. Maybe it’s flashing to promote Mueller’s latest indictment of one of President Trump’s cronies. Maybe it wants me to stare at photos from the devastating Camp Fire in southern California. Inevitably, I receive this news on the small supercomputer in my pocket, and I know something awful is coming, because my darkened phone is blinking at me. A tiny, pinprick-sized blue light appears on a chipped and smudged black screen. An endorphin hit comes, then panic washes over me. Whatever I’m doing or thinking is immediately derailed. That blue dot has me trained better than any of Pavlov’s dogs. And it has me on a short leash. —Andy Kroll

Salad kills you now
You want to eat better. You really do. You order the salad version of your burrito instead of going into full bean-and-guac bonanza mode. And you wait in that stupid salad line at lunch rather than tip-toeing over to the pepperoni and buffalo chicken-anything zone. But E. coli shits on your diet decisions. Literally. In 2018, it seemed every time you thought it was safe to go green, there was another recall. Sure, it was mainly a California agricultural fiasco. But since the sediment of our Western agricultural reservoirs tested positive, according to the FDA — and it’s our state with the sixth largest economy on planet Earth (or maybe it’s now fifth? surpassing the United Kingdom’s GDP, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce) who is to blame — and California basically feeds us all right? So we dump the romaine, then the green and red leaf lettuces. But should we be composting this? And maybe it’s not really going to make us sick? Oh well, I guess sesame chicken and fried rice for dinner after all. I mean, they practically want us to vote with our stomachs right? —Jerry Portwood

Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York, . Altria, one of the world's biggest tobacco companies, is spending nearly $13 billion to buy a huge stake in the vape company Juul as cigarette use continues to declineAltria Juul, New York, USA - 20 Dec 2018

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Do teens not realize Juul pods have nicotine?
There was a moment a few years ago when it looked like decades of PSAs had finally snuffed out teen smoking. Then came Juul, a thumb-sized device that took vaping from nerdy subculture to mainstream fad. Teens love it — over the past year, as Juul has carved out 76 percent of the e-cigarette market; the number of high-school seniors who have tried vaping has gone up 78 percent. Juul’s flavored nicotine pods, offered in flavors like crème brulée and mango, take most of the blame — so convincing, after all, that a quarter of teen users thought they were just vaping flavors. No one seems to be more annoyed by the trend than Juul itself — its booming teen business has brought heat from the Surgeon General and the FDA. The company recently said in a statement that they are “committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products,” but at this point, it might be out of their hands. Sure, a convenient way to wean cigarette-addicted adults off nicotine seemed like a great idea. But what kind of wacky dystopian future is this where teens think it’s cool to suck on USB sticks? —Elisabeth Garber-Paul

Losing all your money right before Christmas
Even with all the uncertainty about world events increasingly festering in your long-beaten down brain, you and your 401(k) could always return to the safe skies of the longest bull run in stock market history. Until recently. In less than a month, the Dow has dropped more than 2,500 points, ushering in the second correction — a decline of 10 percent from its recent peak — of 2018 and headed for its worst December since the Great Depression. Great news for Counting Crows, who can license “A Long December” for crappy pharma ads treating your depression. Bad news for most people with money in the market. Silver lining: You’re not touching that 401(k) until retirement, so turn off CNBC, take a deep breath and eat something bad for you. But either way, go boring index funds and stop day trading. It’s stupid. —Jason Newman

President Donald Trump crosses his arms after speaking with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on the phone about a trade agreement between the United States and Mexico, in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington. Trump has bowed to widespread pressure from veterans groups and others to do more to honor John McCain's death. Trump on Monday ordered flags at the White House and elsewhere lowered to half-staff until the six-term senator is buried Sunday. He also proclaimed "respect" for McCain, with whom he feuded bitterly for years. It was a marked reversal from Trump's refusal to comment on McCain. Earlier Monday, the White House flag had been raisedTrump McCain, Washington, USA - 27 Aug 2018

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP/REX/Shutterstock

What if he gets away with it?
Every expert said he had no chance in 2016. Every poll had him down. Now all the talking-head legal experts say he’s in real legal jeopardy. Sure, it looks bad: His lawyer flipped, there have been multiple indictments of confidants and more are coming. The Times ran a many-thousand-word expose on why his family empire is built on fraud. And we haven’t even seen the final Mueller report yet. But he has a network of millions worshiping at his altar. The senate and the house GOP barely mumble criticisms anymore. He’s likely the most corrupt executive in the country’s history. What if he gets reelected? What if everyone around him falls and he still stands, mocking his foes with cheap put-downs and exclamation points? What if he gets to play golf and eat fast food for the rest of his life? Will the country just shrug and move on? How can we forget these last few years and the horrific debasing of our highest office? He has abdicated his role as moral leader of the country and as a result we’ve all become untethered and adrift in an amoral universe where greed is good and the rotten rise to the top. What if he faces zero consequences? I just can’t shake the feeling that he’s going to walk out of the White House and go right back to the country club and there will be nothing but wreckage in his wake. —Sean Woods

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