The ideas and images that come to mind when you think of technology as an instrument are more useful than if you think of it as a tool. Instruments — I’m specifically talking about musical instruments — are a way to create culture.
You approach instruments with a set of expectations and associations that are more humane. It’s built into their very purpose. Instruments are meant to make something for other people, not making things. When you use an instrument, you have an expectation that it is going to take effort to use it well. Using an instrument takes practice. You form a relationship with that object. It becomes part of your identity that you make something with it. You tune it. You understand that there’s no such thing as a “best” guitar in the same way that there’s not necessarily a “best” phone.
Conceding that a typeface is a tool sounds dangerously close to an excuse: toolmakers cannot be held responsible for things made with their tools, or the tasks leading up to those things. They are only responsible for the making of the tool itself. If a person decides to use a hammer to drive home a screw, then so be it. The hammer was only designed for nails. It’s not our fault the typography doesn’t look good. The typeface is just a tool — you’re using it wrong.
This 1993 article by Mark Weiser is relevant to our world today.
Take intelligent agents. The idea, as near as I can tell, is that the ideal computer should be like a human being, only more obedient. Anything so insidiously appealing should immediately give pause. Why should a computer be anything like a human being? Are airplanes like birds, typewriters like pens, alphabets like mouths, cars like horses? Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal? Further, it takes a lot of time and attention to build and maintain a smoothly running team of people, even a pair of people. A computer I need to talk to, give commands to, or have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer that is too much the center of attention.
Some great ideas here about using metaphors when explaining technical topics.
I really like these four guidelines for good metaphors:
Some of these really tickle my fancy bone.
That’s the icing on the iceberg
You let the horse out of the cart
What planet are you living under?
That opens a whole other kettle of fish
The cat’s out of the barn
Patience comes to those who wait
That’s right up my cup of tea
Oh, what a lovely metaphor! What's your online home?
Adam Greenfield is spot-on here, dismantling Apple's "imitate real world objects" design guideline for iPhone and iPad apps.
A detailed look at the troubled history of George Lakoff, the father of conceptual metaphor.