Policy made plain.
March 7 2000 3:30 AM

Now Is the Winter of Our New Contents (Part 3)


Or is it Part 4? Anyway, today we launch the latest version of our home page. One of the exciting things about being a journalist on the Web is that conventions that have been settled for centuries in print—such as how you inform your readers about the current content of your publication—are still being invented online. The most avant-garde print magazine has a cover and a table of contents. Web sites are still struggling with home pages, site maps, menus and submenus, and so on.

This latest version of Slate's home page combines, we hope, the advantages of various past versions and addresses various reader complaints and suggestions. We have eliminated the distinction between the "New Today" and "Complete" views of our contents (along with a lot of headachey scholastic arguments about the meaning of "new," "today," and "complete"). Instead, we list everything posted on our site for the past week in reverse chronological order—i.e., newest first. If you're only interested in what's new today, that material will be grouped at the top of the list.

In fact, there are now four ways to explore Slate's content:

  • Our "promo space" at the top of the home page functions like a traditional magazine cover, directing you to what the editors believe to be of special interest.
  • If you prefer to browse by category—Briefing, Politics, Culture, Utilities—use the drop-down menus that run across the top of the page to the right of the Slate logo. These menus now work with Netscape Navigator as well as Internet Explorer.
  • If you want to see everything that's been posted or updated today, or this week, or since last Thursday, just scroll down the contents list.
  • And for more recherché needs, don't forget Slate Search, which can find you articles from Slate's entire history written by a particular author or about a particular subject or published a particular week, as well as the usual word search.


Slate's crack development team, led by Oswaldo Ribas, and our design team, led by (and more or less consisting of) Kathleen Kincaid, will be serving up more new treats in the next few months. Meanwhile, enjoy our ultimate home page—until the next one.

The Return of Conspicuous Leisure

 One of the most shocking news stories of 1999 was a Wall Street Journal article revealing that Jeff Bezos gets eight hours of sleep every night. The shock was only partly that the founder and CEO of Amazon.com actually spends so much time in the sack. The bigger shock was that he would admit it—even brag about it. And the author, Nancy Ann Jeffrey, found half a dozen business big shots who made the same claim.

The Journal quite rightly labeled this development a "new status symbol." That article—like all successful "trend" stories—reinforced the trend it purported to discover. Overnight (so to speak) the relationship between status and sleep is reversing itself. You used to prove your importance by not having time for sleep, and you proved your machismo by being able to go without it. The traditional execuporn magazine CEO profile has our hero up answering e-mail or reading memorandums until 2:30 a.m., then up again at 5 a.m. to catch Europe before they go to lunch. (He is allowed a 45-second executive nap mid-afternoon.) From now on, though, you prove your importance by insisting on your eight hours—who's going to stop you?—and your machismo by a dedication to physical fitness, of which lots of sleep is a part.


So why this change—apart from the law of nature that all trends reverse themselves (by brute force of journalism if they refuse to take a hint)? One obvious explanation is that boomers intend to live forever. But the bigger explanation is that these days everyone's getting too little sleep: working moms, blue-collar workers doing two nonunion jobs, young dot-com wannabes. Being too busy to get a good night's sleep is an ambition all-too-easy to achieve. Actually getting a good night's sleep, on the other hand: That's class.

Thorstein Veblen explained it all a century ago (1899) in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He addressed the vexing problem of how you display your wealth and flaunt your power in a society that's moved beyond a cattle economy and autocratic rule. His most famous solution was "conspicuous consumption"—buying things to show you can afford them, ideally because they have little other purpose. But he also recommended "conspicuous leisure." Put simply, the idea is that by not working you prove to the world that you don't have to work. "Abstention from labour is not only a honorific or meritorious act, but it comes to be a requisite of decency," he wrote archly.

But in recent decades, Veblen has been turned upside down. One displayed one's importance—even one's wealth—by being very, very busy. In fact, "You must be very busy" became the standard form of verbal obeisance: an efficient and bearable way of saying, "You outrank me, and I honor you." Unemployment was for poor people. In the business world, early retirement was a badge of shame, no matter how golden the handshake.

This is all about to change, not just sleeping habits. Sunday's New York Times Magazine special issue on the "New American Worker" told a familiar story about the 9-5 organization man being replaced by the frantic free-lance operator with no regular hours, no job security, no paid vacation or other perks. As the busy-busy culture becomes universal—janitors with pagers, high-school kids with PalmPilots—the only way to distinguish yourself is the old-fashioned way: to be demonstrably un-busy. Leisure will become a status symbol again.

Several recent articles have reported on a phenomenon already well known in the West Coast cyberculture: people "retiring" in their 30s or even their 20s. Having worked 24/7 for eight or 10 years, they understandably talk of burnout and a desire to spend time with their kids, get back in shape, visit New Zealand, clean out the basement, and so on. Of course they are not special in having these basic human hungers—only in being able to satisfy them. The best early-warning symptom of burnout is probably discovering you can afford it.

Meanwhile the trend in society-at-large is still toward more work, not less. Welfare reform apparently has succeeded not merely in forcing many women to take jobs but in starting to create a stigma against not working within the underclass. Teen-agers of every class spend astonishing hours at "after-school" jobs. Just last week, Congress eliminated the work penalty in Social Security. Now seniors will be able to forgo retirement and work till they drop—which many will need to do as actual pensions become something your grandfather told you about.

It's perfectly sensible for a rich society that's getting richer to use some of that affluence to "buy" more leisure. If computers allow us to make 10 widgets for the former cost of five, we can now afford to have 10 widgets. But we can also afford six widgets and a couple of extra days off, which is probably a better deal. It's not a bad thing if fashionable workaholism is replaced by a more balanced attitude among those who can afford it. But it's a pity if the distribution of leisure is succumbing to the same forces that have created a "divide" in the distribution of so much else.