Have you been following the Silicon Valley Rebellion?

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Have you been following the Silicon Valley Rebellion? This is the phenomenon where rank-and-file tech employees are now demanding overtime pay in lieu of gym privileges, company cafeterias, stock options and other perks.

In other words, they’d rather have the privileges of clock-punchers. There’s even talk of unionizing to fight outsourcing and protect worker rights.
Of Silicon Valley’s many unpredictable permutations over the years, this has to rank among the most astonishing. We’re talking about the wellspring of entrepreneurialism. The place where digital pioneers went to break — not remake — all the rules.

In assessing the valley malaise, a couple of things need to be kept in mind. First is a longstanding Silicon Valley mythology, epitomized by the T-shirt slogan of early Apple employees, “90 Hours a Week and Loving It.”

No lesser a workaholic than Bill Gates explained to me once how 90 hours a week was mathematically unsustainable, leaving a mere 11 hours per 24 for sleep, meals, transportation to and from work and whatever else one might try to do. Gates felt 60 to 70 hours a week was more realistic.

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This is not to minimize the high-octane, life-sacrificing contributions of Silicon Valley, Microsoft and other tech bastions over the years. But any intense intellectual or physical pursuit requires at least temporary around-the-clock commitment. Silicon Valley just marketed it better.

Still, I wonder if the current rebellion would be under way if the Valley had stuck to its original focus. The reason tech employees could boast of inhumane workloads was because of their quest, summed up in Steve Jobs’ famous pitch to then-Pepsi chief John Sculley: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Through the early ’90s, the youthful PC industry’s emphasis was on visions for a new “Knowledge Navigator” world driven by “Information At Your Fingertips,” and “A Computer on Every Desk and in Every Home.” The point was to change the world.

The world changed all right. Greed took over.

When he helped redefine Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, venture-capital icon John Doerr described it as the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in human history. In the lawsuit-riddled aftermath of dot-bombs, one can question the “legal” part, but in any case Doerr’s emphasis was squarely on the lucre.

That set up a whole generation of tech workers to gravitate to the valley in search of fabulous riches. Who cared about a vision for the future? “Five and out” was the byword — work five years, take your stock bounty and sail into the sunset.

Today, “Take Back Your Time” organizer John de Graaf notes, a tighter economy may be driving companies to “demand more while giving less.” Dialog over long hours, worker stress and quality of life has shifted from “a private to a public conversation,” de Graaf added, and raised awareness in pressured sectors such as Silicon Valley.

Technology still attracts dedicated, idealistic trailblazers willing to work long hours in pursuit of a better society. Most of the ones I know have left corporate settings for their own businesses, startups and forward-looking policy groups and nonprofits. They put in long hours without complaint, in part because they are following a vision.

There also are happy tech workers at established companies, particularly Google and Apple Computer (yes, their stock price may have something to do with it). But three decades after the dawn of the personal-computing revolution, disenchantment seems more the rule than the exception.

If Silicon Valley had stayed about building a new world rather than bank accounts, one wonders whether job satisfaction would be in such peril at the celebrated font of innovation.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com