When I was about fourteen years old, I came across a computer application called Fruity Loops; It came in a CD that shipped with a computing magazine. I remember firing the application up for the first time. It was borderline mesmerizing to see the computer screen fill up with buttons, knobs, controls, metronomes as the program loaded. Fruity Loops is what’s commonly called “Digital Audio Workstation” or DAW, a fully-fledged music production system. Fruity Loop’s interface reflected the complexity of electronic music production. There were mixers, effects, instruments, tools to change said instruments, automation — it was the “Full Monty”. Given that I never had any musical training, the application had a draw that made me dabble in electronic music production. My favorite pastime became creating melodies and drum loops. None of my music was any good, but looking back, it was my first instrument. Not a musical instrument by definition, but an instrument nonetheless.
An instrument is something that molds itself around you, and you, around it. A tool is mostly meant to achieve a task that’s defined with an arbitrary degree of specificity. Compared to that — an instrument — is more involved in the process, creative or otherwise; It augments its user. When I first dabbled in Fruity Loops, it was an alien piece of machinery — and when I finally gave up on ever producing music due to my sheer lack of creativity, it was a piece of software that I could bend to my will; I understood its constructs, its nuances, its “knobs, and buttons”. But looking back, I realize that I had dabbled completely inside the confines of the software itself and my musical evolution was a result of that confinement — the mechanical nature of my ungodly music was an effect of the software on me.
My second instrument was my camera. It started as a tool, however. In the past, my photographic goals were specific and exact, and sometimes the camera could deliver, and sometimes it couldn’t. If I wanted to take a particular photograph of a landscape in a specific season of the year, I could use the camera as a tool to achieve that. But the problem with the photographs I took was that it was a result of measured calculated actions. And why wouldn’t it be? In essence, I was trying to reproduce photographs that were already taken by photographers before me — I was a cheap imitator. I didn’t let myself grow within the given medium — the process involved me and my tool. The saddest part of my photography during that time is that I didn’t embrace the camera as an instrument. I didn’t try to exploit its limitations, neither did I attempt to push what was possible with it — and by extension, myself. A camera ostensibly is a tool, but it has the potential to be an instrument.
If you take my camera in your hands, and try to create a photograph, even if you are familiar with the make, you’ll find aspects of it not congruent to your photography. The camera has changed from the day I brought it home to the camera that it is today; From the finery of the strap it hangs from to the minutiae of software configuration; You might stumble upon its non-standard color rendition, or the non-intuitive actions it’s numerous buttons perform — it would be alien. But for me, it makes complete sense. And that’s not because I sat down one day and adapted my camera to my liking, but it was a gradual process where I made little almost subconscious decisions based on my photography at that moment in time. And in turn, those small changes changed how I take photographs — for example, little nuances in the camera’s color rendition have affected how I compose my frames. In some aspects, even the inherent operational nature of the camera has affected how I look at a scene or a subject. The instrument is not only the physical object but also the synergy between the user and itself.
My third instrument is programming languages — not a single one, but a slew of them. If you ever catch me writing computer programs, you might notice a borderline unhealthy obsession around expressing the computational thought that I am trying to perform with the computer — expressing it in a way so that someone else or future me can grasp and build upon it. These programming languages offer a variety of constructs that enables me to express; Sometimes some languages impose structure and proofs of correctness to its expressions, and sometimes the language lets the programmer's mind roam wild, with nothing but the bare minimum; There’s a wide variety of ways a programmer can write down their thoughts that’ll be processed by a synthetic mathematical machine. For a long time, I thought these languages are just tools to allow for solutions when problems arise — and there’s no place for me to say that those aren’t. But what took me some time to realize is the effect of the languages on me. Sometimes extreme expressivity of a language has encouraged me to put down computation that my fellow programmer can appreciate on an early Monday morning — sometimes it has enabled me to untangle my unorganized thoughts on late-night hackathons. All that is to say that this symbiosis between mostly established computational structures and evolving shape of my thoughts is what elevates programming languages from being tools to being instruments.
Regardless if it is a physical object or not, if you look around you’ll find a multitude of instruments, some you created, some got elevated from being a tool. From the phone in your pocket to the arrangement of your working desk — from the calendar that hangs on your wall, to the post-it notes on your refrigerator — all instruments. Things you affect that end up affecting you, in subtle ways over time; Constructs that only make sense to you, relationships that only exist for you, are instruments.