Another under-loved developer blog

Tim Winter @twtfayta 30m to read
Director of Engineering at DataRobot.

I contribute directly, manage teams, and get things done.

Burgeoning Exocortex

Webapps as Neuroprosthetics

Setting yourself up for getting things right, every time.


As a reasonable analog to Dan McKinley’s excellent essay, Choose Boring Technology, there is value in choosing boring methodologies. In the very smart book, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, the story of the checklist was surprisingly a page turner despite the hidden value of checklists sounding entirely underwhelming at first.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the riveting stories, as the author is a surgeon with war stories straight from the ER, and the greatest research into the effective use of checklists is in the study of aviation disaster prevention with its wealth of near misses (and near hits) to draw on. The greatest strength, however, is the subject material itself- checklists are unassuming, yet provide a reasonable answer to the question: is there a reason why air travel is not just safer, but orders of magnitude safer than other means of travelling?

To try to correctly sell the value of the pre-flight checklist or the book itself in a few sentences would be an injustice, although a reasonable attempt is the story of checklists becoming a permanent and mandatory tool in manned flight almost a century ago. I highly recommend the story and Atul Gawande’s book both.

So what does that have to do with an Exocortex? Well, it began with a desire to try this out in practice. It turns out the difference between a pre-flight checklist and a grocery checklist is distinct and meaningful, and putting together a little webapp for personal pre-flight checklists was an afternoon exercise.

A good checklist skips all the things that an expert would definitely do, and includes the few things that could be skipped but make a big impact. Surprisingly, I found a lot of value in the tool and have found myself using it daily. As someone who has written more than one toy productivity tool, I was amazed that checklists were somehow less boring than trying to remember the litany of little things I could get wrong in a given situation. I quickly made a clone of this for work and have been getting clear gains there as well.


That would have been that, but the Charles Stross’ book Accelerando is a perfect audiobook for a morning commute, and the transition from driving to walking is a perfect time for a checklist.

In Accelerando, estimates of the near future (which predate the announcement of the iPhone, somehow) include big jumps in human-computer interfaces. One tantalizing one is the ability to spin off search threads mid conversation, only to be presented with those results via a cool Magic Leap-esque headset when they’re ready. Of course, being futurism, this expands into adept users of technology running entire feasibility studies asynchronously via a cloud of workers, able to attack problems from several angles at once and turn impossible problems into simple solutions that work for everyone.

Without spoiling too much, at one point a headset is stolen to pawn for cash. In a twist of events, the thief dons the headset and has limited success walking into the life of its former owner- he is hurried along to meet schedules, presented with talking points and research for discussions he knows nothing about, and tries to hum along.

The idea of offloading mental workload into a computer gives rise to the idea of an “exocortex”, a part of the mind that exists outside of the head. At a certain level of integration, it becomes an indistinguishable part of who that person is.


As it turns out, whatever part of my mind grumbles about getting out of bed (aside, also the part that grumbles about doing dishes or picking up) is placated by putting on headphones and listening to music. It’s night and day- it turns out I can do almost any chores with some reasonably loud music playing. I know how to catch a plane when I need to, but getting out of bed on the first alarm has been a challenge my whole adult life. This seems to have solved the problem, and thoroughly.

Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, as this isn’t particularly noteworthy in and of itself. Music helps get people out of bed is not shocking. However, effectively convincing a brain into doing something it otherwise would refuse to do feels, well, worth thinking about. Being bad at getting out of bed in the morning isn’t a personality trait per say, but maybe always getting out of bed on time is. And if it’s not, what about the difference between not being caught flat footed in a meeting 85% of the time vs 100% of the time? Isn’t that the difference between the people who are at the top, and those near it?

Perfection is incredibly rare, and it gives a strong the impression to others. Does that make it a part of who someone is? How much does a webapp need to affect a person before it too is a part of who they are?

So the thought has been running through my mind. This toy productivity app has been extremely helpful, yet for the moment it remains a toy. But, as I write new checklists, as I add new toy productivity apps- I can’t help but admit these toys are becoming a bigger part of my successes and failures. That success and that failure will always be a part of what I believe myself to be. How much of this burgeoning exocortex is?