“The Hunter hard drive is like an ocean,” a reporter who was passed its contents by Rudy Giuliani tells me. “There is so much material… We are constantly excavating and making new discoveries. Something will happen in the news, and then an email we thought was innocuous will make sense.”
The reporter has become a de-facto expert on everything Hunter— the equivalent of Don DeLillo’s Adolf Hitler historian in White Noise, except lacking the ability to connect his subject to larger historical forces. He is part of a cottage industry of political consultants, social media influencers, and primetime anchors feasting off the digital carcass and most vulnerable moments of an addict on the periphery of power, whose sole function has been reduced to a prop for sociopaths crawling to power.
The Hunter Biden saga is more than a political scandal: It is an anthropological warning. Imagine having every sensitive moment of your life unearthed, investigated, framed, reframed, weaponized, and deployed by Ivy League graduates who all climbed to the top of their respective industries. Videos of you having sex edited alongside concerned text messages from your parents, surgically examined and fed to reporters by a former Goldman Sachs executive, packaged for social media as montages set to Biggie Smalls, turned into news cycles and t-shirts and independent films.
The president’s son is far from the first media sacrifice turned into iconography and integrated within, and onto, a national-historical narrative. Before Hunter there was Monica, who spent two decades trapped in one moment which became further removed from reality during each retelling and reference—an abstraction with collective imagination projected onto it. With Hunter, to use the reporter’s description, an “ocean” of hyperreal images exists for excavation, constructed and deconstructed at will, made indistinguishable from reality. We think we know Hunter Biden because we know representations of his worst moments, of which there are many based on the insidious nature of addiction, but we cannot know him at all—just as we never knew Monica Lewinsky. We know only what we choose to see, based on individual cognitive biases and the motivations of communicators who have no personal animosity toward the subject at hand, but whose job is to use images to trigger “the decision between positive and negative of a binary code of suggested meaning,” according to the German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst.
The arrival of the supposed “deep fake,” which some writers warn will make reality indistinguishable from hyperreality, arrived long ago. Hunter Biden is merely a case study for what awaits all of us when our troves of data floating on the iCloud, third party servers, and the dark web become centralized and given organizational structure. The warning itself is already outdated: A physical hard drive is a relic compared to the interconnected informational management economy most of the West is opted into.
“With the print fixation of the traditional archival terminology, we run the risk of overlooking the fact that a different kind of archive is being built in nonpublic, proprietary ways by entrepreneurs like Bill Gates with Corbis image bank, which holds the digital copyright on a lot of European historical imagery,” writes Ernst in Digital Memory and the Archive. “Data trash is, positively, the future ground for media-archeological excavations.”
Everyone has a trail of digital horcruxes scattered throughout the web, awaiting excavation. The digital architecture necessary to obtain said data, which we consider private compared to the data which we share “publicly,” is still in its infancy. The history of modern capitalism shows that the state and criminals are the earliest creators and adopters of new systems; the Mob created Las Vegas just as DARPA built the Internet, money launderers among the first wave of pioneers under both simulations.
“Data” is a shapeshifting term, meaning something different depending on the context. Data by itself is a reference point guiding decision-making but can be shown selectively to manipulate narratives and outcomes and can likewise be used to counter those narratives and outcomes with new ones. While it is easy to dismiss Hunter Biden as the aberration to the rule that our data rests in the hands of unknown actors who may choose to use this information—falling back on convenient moral judgments based on the contents of his data à la “I would never do that” or “I have nothing to hide” —the reality is that we are all closer to having our vulnerable moments dug up than we think.
“I have nothing to hide” becomes wishful thinking when, what was at the time an innocuous text message badmouthing a corporate executive to a colleague, ends up in a data breach and you’re found to have broken a non-disparagement clause by interested parties. “I would never do that” suddenly becomes hypocrisy when facial recognition software matches your image to security camera footage from ten years ago. These rationales and justifications—which, taken to their extreme, serve an a priori ideological framework for authoritarian systems—are likewise rendered useless by the malleability of what data can represent, and how regimes can manipulate data. Police departments have, on occasion, fabricated evidence, so it is not hard to see how both the properties and narrative of data are ripe for Kafka-esque entrapments. Data is reference points mixed-and-matched by power to turn an individual into whatever role power wants them to play, serving as narrative for Foucauldian ideological regimes, in which Hunter Biden’s most vulnerable moments are weaponized by authority figures to reestablish their roles in a binary order.
Narratives also change and are as malleable as their individual reference points under a long enough timeline; they can be juxtaposed over new data reference points, reverse engineered, and extended. “Narrative construction of reality is a cultural sense-making pattern” requiring archival authority, according to Ernst. Today, hyperreal montages of Hunter Biden smoking crack and brandishing firearms blast across social media pathways. Tomorrow, it is congressional candidates and c-suite executives. “The function the Hunter tapes serve now is to normalize the past behavior of Republican candidates we have in the wings,” Steve Bannon’s gopher Vish Burra, who leaked Hunter Biden’s laptop contents to the media, tells me.
The next frontier are our neighbors browsing our text message exchanges and search engine history from ten years ago, as easily navigable as perusing Google once new informational management systems and archives go mainstream—trickling down from the state and criminal organizations to transnational corporations, to mass consumer culture. Already, we observe one another’s digital presences in a Panopticon across multiple digital media fronts, searching for clues about one another in publicly available legal filings, property sales, social media profiles and content, reviews, and all reference points and associations contained within.
Transparency radicals welcoming accessible Wikileaks pages on everyone, because they will contain the seeds for exposing authority figures, would be wise to remember that power adapts. Even as tech companies develop new ways to monetize literal garbage, Mark Zuckerberg pays security teams to guard his trash bins. With enough money and resources, high net-worth individuals can buy the right to privacy from info ops specialists working closely with global law firms, playing whack-a-mole with white pages while waging litigation battles against the access points to their archives. Transparency, whether applied to Bitcoin’s ledger system or a new information bomb detonated on the West, has become synonymous with surveillance—within the new culture produced under “mass transparency” mechanisms will remain for power to adapt as everyone else produces more and more public reference points which can weaponized against them.
The paradox is that while data archival will be weaponized and applied to everyone, further upending public and private institutions as individuals’ moments and exchanges are juxtaposed alongside their professional associations as representation, the court system beseiged by all resulting lawsuits, social norms will change. Historian Niall Ferguson compared the Trump years, and the perceived appearance of new information flows like Twitter meta-narratives, to the invention of the printing press which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Other neoconservative writers have built on this parallel, with Arthur Brooks writing about financial and technological cycles which produce periods of political disruption (though all are interrelated). Social norms and narratives will change as the weaponization of data loses its ability to inflict long-term damage; and with this, a new set of social norms and narratives will take hold. Power adapts at every level.
The images and videos of Hunter Biden in compromising situations are literally just pixels that human beings have chosen have political and cultural significance. The narratives projected onto these pixels will change like the digital format of the pixels themselves—the only permanent power lying in the system’s 0-1 code.