Parker's roles at Facebook and Napster has brought him money and fame but critics say his lavish lifestyle is giving the 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 $10m. 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 $2.5m as recompense.
When details of that report and the pay-off emerged last week, 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, the top law enforcement official in the state, was on the guest list and partying away in the damaged grove. But the symbolism was more important than just 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.
After all, news that Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg and some of his closest tech pals have formed a political campaigning group recently earned a prickly public response. 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. He is described in the same sort of language as a rock star and is famed for late nights, fast cars, private jets, rumours of illicit substances and a succession of gorgeous girlfriends.
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. He started young. Parker was born in 1979, in Herndon, Virginia, to an oceanographer father and a mother who worked in advertising. The former introduced him to computers, teaching him to program at seven years old. A sickly child, he was astonishingly bright and a voracious reader.
Software became his passion and he morphed into a teenage hacker, hanging out with like-minded souls and seeking to dance past the online security of firms and organisations. He started failing at school. Not that it mattered, for Parker was very, very good at computers.
He loved to penetrate organisations and then email their system administrator from their own account, pointing out the holes in their defences. But he also got caught. His father, discovering him in front of a computer screen in the early hours, yanked away his keyboard before he could log out. As he had been hacking at the time, his computer’s identity was exposed. The FBI came calling, arresting the 16-year-old, who was sentenced to community service. But it was the making of him. He drifted away from hacking to more legitimate pursuits, interning at web companies, and started to use his talents to earn serious money. He clocked up $80,000 in his last year of high school, decided to skip college and moved to San Francisco.
In 1999, he formed Napster with fellow web prodigy Shawn Fanning, whom he had met via chat boards. In those early days of the internet, when the impact of the rapidly spreading web was still being determined, Napster was a landmark moment. It was a file-sharing site that allowed users to share music, which sounds innocuous enough until you realise that it rendered CDs old fashioned and completely transformed the entire music industry. It was also illegal and, after entertainment firms went after it, the site was taken down for copyright infringement.
But the Sean Parker legend was born. Similar rises and falls followed as Parker developed an uncanny knack for spotting key moments in the rise of the internet. In 2002, he launched Plaxo, a little-known but hugely influential networking site that was a precursor of the behemoth 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 was 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 became a billionaire, through his shareholding, and continued putting his hi-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 the rest of 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 last week by Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic, Parker emailed her with a detailed defence of his nuptials. “Everything we did was an 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 a little 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.
Parker once described this shaded area of morality, back when he was a hacker and called himself a “grey hat” in a homage to old cowboy films where goods guys wore white and bad guys donned black. “Grey hats are the ones who think they’re doing good, but they’re not,” he said. That is an argument that many are starting to have over aspects of the tech industry. No doubt, some of Parker’s projects and investments will – as always – be at the centre of it.