From a 2050 interview with Sarah Winston
former President of the United
Written circa 2002
Ran Dather: Madam President, when you took office 10 years ago, the United
States and other leading nations faced terrific problemsthe oil had
started to run out, we had runaway global warming, and terrorists were
making nuclear weapons in their basementsyet you and your administration
were able not only to maintain prosperity, but also to greatly relax world
President Winston: Ran, it all comes down to teamwork, of course, and I
have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by wonderfully successful
people. But your next question will be, `'Why were you and they so
successful, and to answer that, I have to say that we were successful
because of what we knew how to do.
For myself, I was especially fortunate to have been educated at an
extraordinary time, when our schools and universities were beginning to
transition from a century or so of focus on blackboards and books. MIT was
especially progressive during that period, spearheading what has come to be
called the 4+4ever approach.
Ran: Can you say a little about what that was like in the beginning.
Well, there was a general sense that the new century required places like
MIT to produce a new kind of product in a new way. After all, leaders of
the 20th century had to be educated in military and political affairs,
whereas this century's leaders have to understand technology and economics.
That was the fundamental motivation behind the shift. Beyond that,
technology was really coming to the rescue, making a kind of education
possible that otherwise just couldn't happen.
Ran: Could you elaborate on that.
Well, first of all, after the web craze of the 90s, people slowly
began to realize that technology in education is about better education,
not just educational productivity. It the beginning, lectures went on line
and all that, but then, the real visionaries began to realize that the
revolution was really about engaging human vision, language, and learning
faculties in new ways.
Ran: So there was a big push toward new, technically-informed educational models?
Well, Ran, your use of the word model is particularly appropriate. When
I was a freshman, in 2006, the whole MIT curriculum was reshaped around the
concept of model. The first three years drilled into us the idea that
everything, from circuit design to running a political campaign, is about
modeling. We learned everything there is to know about
modelingmathematical models, simulation models, graphical models to
engage our visual faculty, knowledge-based expert system models to capture domain
expertise, probabilistic models to capture uncertainty, linear
time-invariant models, nonlinear time-varying models, chaotic systems,
ecological systems, models of evolution, models of protein folding, models
of worker morale. Each department had its own spin to put on the basic
idea, but everybody understood that modeling was the universal idea. It
was pretty intense. That was when the basic design of the school ring, the
Brass Rat, was changed to include the fire hoses along with the traditional
Ran: So what was a typical day like?
Well, I would get up about 9 or so and hack for a few hours. That was
where I learned all of the skill type stuff. I'd read a little, try the
skillintegration by parts or somethingget over a confusion using the
on line mini-lecture library, follow some web links to alternate
mini-lectures and mini-lecture annotations, and annotations on annotations
done by students over the yearsstuff like that.
Then, after lunch, I'd go to classes. Because all the skill building was
offloaded to the morning and evening hours, the faculty was able to mostly
probe what we knew. We would gather in small groups, and the faculty would
help us fill in gaps and such, with lots of discussion and faculty
editorializing about everything from real-world practice to open questions.
Sometimes the classes were like Quaker meetings. The professor would pose
a problem no one knew how to solve, including her, and we would all just
sit there until someone had an idea. Sometimes we would all agree to
reconvene electronically that night to see if anyone could push the idea.
Sometimes the professor would suggest a book that might have an approach to
Eventually, as we got the hang of this style of learning, we students would
organize our own classes, leaning on the mini-lecture library and the
Oracle societies formed by the alumni. That's how I learned differential
equations with some of my friends. We could have gone to the lectures, but
we decided it would be more fun to teach it to each other. We each took a
chunk of the material and picked a week to teach it to the others. If we
got stuck, and couldn't get unstuck with a mini-lecture, we would go to the
Diff-Eq Oracle Society. Generally, in a minute or two after posting a
request for time, somebody would voluteer for either instant help or help
by appointment. Often the responses would come from the other side of the
Ran: You mention the first three years, but wasn't it a four-year program?
A four-year initiation, really. The first three years were focused on
showing us how, as scientists and engineers, we can satisfy our genetic
curiosity about the world by putting on the spectacles of modeling. The
fourth year was a transition to empowerment. We learned how to use that
stuff not just to understand the world, but to shape the world to
We also began to make the transition to what, in the end, is a forever
involvement through the Crosstalk tutors program. Every senior was
combined with a recent alum and a not-so-recent alum and the team of three
was charged with the responsibility of jointly tutoring a few younger kids
in a basic subject. There were all sorts of benefits: people got tutored,
the tutors finally learned the material, human links were forged across
generations, everybody learned how to work together via the web, and
seniors got ready to be participating alums themselves.
Ran: Why were employers willing to give alums time to participate?
As you know Ran, quite a few MIT people employ themselves in the end, but
you're right, after the web revolution, most worked a few years before they
started up something of their own. I'll never forget the look on the
recruiter's face when I said I would accept her offer, but I would need to
trade four hours on Thursday afternoons for four hours on the weekends. I
think she thought I had a pretty heavy psychoanalysis habit until I
explained that I was in a nine-year MIT program, that for the fifth, sixth,
and seventh years required me to be a remote tutor. She made a face again
when I told her I would need two weeks of leave each August for the
on-campus remote-tutor certification program.
Ran: Well, you probably could have told him anything, inasmuch as there was
such a demand for technical people, but what was your purpose in taking
time out from career building?
None of us really looked at it that way. We thought of ourselves as MIT
students loaned out for a while to practice what we had learned and to
learn what we needed to learn. Of course, the Technology Growth and
Preservation Bill, which I introduced when I was in the Senate, made things
a lot easier, by granting serious tax credits to education-friendly
Ran: But there must have been product deadlines and other distractions.
Well, I confess to having been manipulated a little, but that was ok,
because I helped to figure out the manipulation mechanisms when I was doing
a UROP in MIT's McGovern Institute. I was fascinated at the time by what
they were doing on conflict resolutionwhich required a kind of modeling,
of coursebut I specifically worked on incentives for forevering.
Ran: What came out of that?
Maybe the most important thing was the degree decoration idea. We knew,
like Napoleon, that soldiers would do anything for a bit of ribbon, and
Karate practitioners would work their guts out for the next higher color of
belt. We figured that the typical, macho MIT student would be attracted to
the idea of additions to their degrees, nicely and prettily designed,
expensively embossed on their diplomas, for specific accomplishments, if
and when they got accomplished. Of course, much of the inspiration came
from the merit-badge idea invented by the Boy Scouts.
Ran: What sort of things got you a decoration?
Well, I got one in public policy for the Technology Growth and Preservation
Bill, but it wasn't a gift. I had to publish a paper on it, and take a
web-mediated oral exam. And in fact, difficulty was a key to the program's
success. You had to do a lot more than just sit in on some web lectures.
Most decorations require something at least as comprehensive as an
undergraduate minor. My first was awarded for my work in the Crosstalk
tutoring program. As you know, all the seniors get involved in that, and
the natural thing is to keep going, to avoid cutting the MIT umbilical, and
to get the decoration. I knew that I wanted to get the decorations
required to take the next step, the new Supreme Masters of Engineering
Management and Practice degree.
Ran: That was what took you back to campus for another two years?
Yes, by then I was already shaped by MIT for seven yearsfour on campus,
three honing my technical skills. I was out long enough for my company to
entrust mission-critical work to me, but not so long as to lose the
learning habit. Of course, I was tutoring and earning decorations
remotely, and that helped too. One of those required me to work pretty
hard on campus for two months during the summer of my second year out. It
was a strange experience in a way. I got decoration credit for learning
the mathematics of encryption from some of the faculty and for teaching
others among the faculty about industrial tools for constructing model-view
Ran: What did your employer think of that?
Well, I chose the company, in part, for their positive attitude. Then, I
told them it wasn't much different from a Army reserve commitment, which
they were used to supporting.
Ran: So what did you do when you went back?
I had to do some hard-core technical stuff, of course, because MIT's
philosophy is that once you lose your ability to absorb technical material,
you lose your honor. But, of course, by then business and leadership had
become, at least as taught at MIT, hard core technical stuff.
Yes, that was very important, and curiously enough, a byproduct of the
campus stresses centered on the gays, lesbians, and ROTC issue. MIT got
the idea that the sort of leadership skills associated with military
training ought to be modelable just like everything else, and programs were
developed to teach those models to anyone who wanted to learn them, not
just people who planned on a military career. By the time I graduated,
leadership training was universal for undergraduates. By the time I went
back for the Studs degree, all the Studs students were required to serve as
TAs in the leadership training program. After all, we had seen something
of the real world.
Oh, that was our code name for the Masters of Engineering Management and
Practice degree. Supreme Test of Unstoppable Drive.
Ran: So, you got your Studs degree; was that it?
Certainly not, that was really just the beginning. I've gotten more out of
MIT since I got the Studs than before and during. And quite a lot of it
was initiated outside of MIT, because the Studs are a pretty aggressive
group. Because the experience was designed to instill a tremendous sense
of camaraderiethere's the human modeling element againwe really think
of ourselves as a perpetual community. One big example is networking of
the human sort: we help each other along a lot during our careers. Another
is the activation of our relationship with MIT. More than half of the
degree decorations were proposed by Studs interest groups. In a way, we
think of the folks in Cambridge as a bunch of pretty smart people we permit
to initiate new members and service our continuing passion to understand
the world in all its dimensions.
Ran: So, the web made this new kind of education-grounded community possible?
Well, the web and media technolgy. Of course it wasn't easy to work out
the right blend of tele-education, intense sorties to Cambridge,
decorations, and all that. The combination has to be attractive,
palatable, and memorable. That is, everything had to be designed to be
hard enough to be wanted, fun enough to be sustained, and conspicuously
valuable enough for MIT to be prominent in every alum's will. It took a
lot of experiments. There were mistakes and failures that had to be
Ran: What sort of mistakes and failures?
Well, the big problem in the beginning was cohorting. It turns out that if
you allow too much flexibility, each person thinks of herself as a group of
one, and then you get distraction and high drop-out rates. Cohorting
creates tribal bondingpeople don't drop out when their buddies are
depending on them. We had to find ways to move people through the system
in what amounted to web-based, virtual fraternities.
Ran: So, there were a lot of unexpected problems.
Yes, but there were also quite a few unexpected triumphs. Amongst the
students, the idea of being admitted for life, and constantly exposed to
positive-attitude type alums, along with a deliberate limit to the number
of formal courses students can take, began to shift the ambience from one
of tired hostility to one of enthusiasic nerd pride. Of course, the chip
Ran: The chip?
Oh, that's the micro chip that the Media Lab started inserting into Brass
Rats around 2010. Whenever I get within 50 feet of another Brass Rat
wearer, my ring gives me a little tingle. Some companies are on to the
idea of walking their interviewees past offices holding MIT graduates. It's
the tactile equivalent to walking into a loud disco.
When the chip started carrying degree decorations in 20<15, the effect was
much like that of the lettuce worn by military officers. With a peek at my
ring's display, I can tell what decorations somebody has earned. It's a
great conversation starter in, say, the Kuala Lumpur airport.
Ran: You mentioned the Crosstalk tutoring program a couple of times; did
that have anything to do with the formation of the Free Consulting Society.
Sure. That and Stallman's Free Software Society and Greenspun's photo.net.
But beyond that, there was the Early
Bird News from the Great Court, and the Alum Interview of the Week, and
all the other stuff that came out of the Alumni Network Services
Ran: What's the Early Bird News from the Great Court
Oh, that was inspired by the news summaries that circulate amongst the
brass in the Pentagon. Only instead of targeted at the military, it was
targeted at technical people. Everybody reads it, partly because it
announces IPOs of MIT startups.
But let me get back to the Free Consulting Society. Mostly, it was derived
from the tutoring program. Everybody got so used to getting and giving
advice across generations of MIT students, it was natural to keep doing it
in the real world. Once somebody helped you in a robot soccer
competition, it was natural to keep helping you, once you got out, with
robot car assembly or whatever.
I'm part of mit.politicians.net. Every week I have two at-home hours
when any MIT student or alum can connect into a Q & A session I run for
that two hours. mit.politicians.net is mostly aimed at helping aspiring
politicians get started, but it works both ways. I got to know a lot of
people through mit.politicians.net that I brought into my administrations.
They were the real basis for our success in handling the global technical
problems it was our lot to inherit from our careless, technically naive
mit.entrepreneurs.net is very popular, of course. But there are a lot of
narrower interest groups, too. Gerry Sussman and Jack Wisdom used to run
one called mit.orbits.net. Some graduates who happened to have a passion
for antennas started mit.antennas.net. In a way, mit.antennas.net was the
perfect model. Free consulting two hours a week. If you think you get
quanitifably valuable advice, you send out two electronic checks: one goes
to the person who advised you, and one for an equal amount to the MIT
alumni fund. It became the shareware of the technically-oriented mind, and
doubled MIT's annual alumni income.
[Interview drifts to other topics ...]