Tech titan gives industry bad name

By Paul Harris

His roles at Facebook and Napster turned the prodigious entrepreneur into a billionaire. But critics say his lavish lifestyle, typified by his $12.5 million wedding last week, is giving his industry a bad name

Given the way he has lived the rest of his life, no one really expected Sean Parker - the hard-partying playboy of tech - to have a quiet, modest wedding. Nor did he disappoint.

Parker and his young songstress girlfriend, Alexandra Lenas, tied the knot last weekend in an ancient grove of Californian redwoods on the gorgeous stretch of coastline known as Big Sur.

But the glories of nature alone were not quite enough. Parker had teams of workmen and builders construct fake ruins, excavate a pond and import scores of potted plants. Some reports put the tab at US$10 million ($12.5 million). It also prompted a stern investigation from the California Coastal Commission, which detailed environmental damage and revealed Parker had agreed to cough up a further US$2.5 million as recompense.

When details of that report and the pay-off emerged, it triggered a storm of outrage at the way in which the billionaire Parker, who has been at the nexus of virtually every major development in tech, seemed to operate outside rules that apply to ordinary people.

That was doubled when it was shown that California's attorney-general, Kamala Harris, was on the guest list and partying away in the damaged grove. But the symbolism was more important than Parker's wedding.

The shindig came at a time when ordinary Americans are becoming increasingly wary of tech titans and their impact in the world.

The largesse seemed to sum up an increasingly pervasive Silicon Valley culture defined by arrogance, a sense of being above the laws of mere mortals and saturated by untold wealth that greases the wheels of power.

Assailed by concerns over privacy and wary of deep-pocketed lobbying by any industry, many sceptics are increasingly waking up to the idea that Big Tech could soon join corporate bogeymen Big Pharma and Big Oil as something to be worried about. Last week, we also learned that America's spies are happily accessing data from giants such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and YouTube. Suddenly, the tech industry's promises of information freedom and interconnectedness look a lot like a civil liberties issue and an out-of-touch, new elite starting to take over the world.

Parker would never see it that way. He regards himself as a rule-breaker but in the causes of good. He is the fun lad-about-town who takes on old industries and transforms them, empowering ordinary people.

Though such a reputation is rare in the nerdy world of Silicon Valley, Parker is one of the industry's most serious players, carving a path through the seminal moments of the information age.

In 2002, he launched Plaxo, a little-known but hugely influential networking site that was a precursor of LinkedIn. He was ousted after two years when he clashed with the board but got a tip from a friend's girlfriend about a new site called Facebook.

He sent its founder, Zuckerberg, a blind email. The two met, Parker used his contacts to bring in funding, and the rest is history and, eventually, the hit movie, The Social Network. Facebook made Parker rich thanks to his stake in the firm, but here, too, he ended up being ousted in 2005 after a drugs bust at a home he had rented in North Carolina. But as Facebook grew into a giant, Parker, by now a billionaire, continued putting his high-tech fingers in many pies.

He moved to New York, becoming famous for his extravagant parties. Since 2006, he has helped run the Founders Fund for uber-rich investor Peter Thiel, with carte blanche to take bets on new start-ups. He's invested in Spotify, a music service seen as a natural heir to Napster, and lesser-known firms such as Airtime.

Admirers and critics alike accept that he has more than a touch of genius about him. Thiel told Vanity Fair: "I've told Sean he may be the long-lost grandson of Howard Hughes - a brilliant entrepreneur who is somehow transforming the United States and yet is not understood by society."

Such words are unlikely to put much of a damper on Parker's self-regard. A compulsive worker, he puts in immensely long hours, seems to need little sleep and runs on something Silicon Valley calls "Sean Parker time" - meaning he is frequently late, though worth waiting for.

Like any young man with an ego and billions, he indulges passions beyond what normal people think possible (such as taking piano lessons from Sean Lennon) and is known for incredibly generous gifts and charity donations.

He also takes an extreme interest in what is written about him. When the details of his wedding were scathingly reported by Alexis Madrigal of Atlantic magazine, Parker emailed her with a detailed defence of his nuptials. "Everything we did was a homage to nature, to the natural redwood environment which I call 'God's cathedral'," he wrote.

That may be so. But now the jury is out on Parker, his industry and his fellow tech titans who increasingly rule our hyperlinked brave new world.

As privacy arguments heat up, as the power of Facebook and Google to shape our lives grows, and as billions of dollars flow into the pockets of a small, elite new class of industrial barons, the sceptical voices are getting louder. What once seemed a bright and shiny new future is suddenly tinged with shadows.


Sean Parker: tech guru and the enfant terrible of Silicon Valley

Origins of a tech titan

Born In Herndon, Virginia, in 1979. His father, Bruce, worked as a government oceanographer and his mother, Diane, was an advertising executive. He started programming at the age of 7.

What he says

"I think the best way to describe me is an archetypal Loki character ... I'm like the prankster or Puck in mythology. He's not trying to cause harm but, rather, to pull back the veil that masks your conventional, collectively reinforced understanding of society," he told Vanity Fair.

Best of times

In June 2004, Parker went to Palo Alto in California's Silicon Valley to join Mark Zuckerberg and help turn Facebook from a bright idea into a global giant worth billions of dollars that has changed the way much of the world works.

Worst of times

Earlier in 2004 Parker was fired from Plaxo, a networking firm that is little known outside tech circles but was very close to his heart. For a long time, his Facebook profile read: "I'm the founding president of Facebook. Prior to that, I was unceremoniously ousted from my last company, Plaxo, which you've probably never heard of."


- Observer

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