Scalable social processes

How minimal music and art help us rethink collaboration.

April 3, 2017 - 3 minute read -
blog art

The other night I came across an unusual music score. First, it is unusually short – only one page. Second, it consists of 53 fragments with some only holding one note. Third, it is for an indefinite number of performers and each performer can decide how many times each fragment is repeated. It was the score of In C, the piece that started the minimal music movement by Terry Riley.

In C, by Terry Riley (1964)

In C makes music through the definition of a social process, similar to that of the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt in visual art. LeWitt is famous for the creation of hundreds of wall drawings that are instruction-based since 1968. For example, in Wall Drawing #122, the artist instructs that the painting contains “all combinations of two lines crossing, placed at random, using arcs from corners and sides, straight, not straight and broken lines”, which resulted something that looked like this:

Wall Drawing #122, Sol LeWitt (1972)

The beauty of these instructions is that they allow repeated creations of a similar output, with slight variations, be it music, visual art, or as we shall see below, technological systems that support large-scale human collaboration.


We have seen that the design of a process allows for the creation of music and drawings in a completely different way. As an HCI researcher, I see a parallel between these processes in some of the existing research in creating scalable social processes facilitated by technological systems.

The work of MIT Media Lab professor Sep Kamvar is a perfect example for illustrating the capability of scalable social processes. A computer scientist, artist and entrepreneur, Sep has taken LeWitt’s wall drawing concepts one step further, by creating a collaborative and participatory experience of drawing on the wall. The software generates instructions for the viewers, and updates instructions based on each individual’s actions for the next viewer, but with constraints from the underlying structure dictated by the artist.

Outside the Lines, from interactive exhibit at Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden (2012)

Watch Sep talk about the idea of scaling social processes below:

Then, taking the idea another step further, Sep created the Wildflower, an open-source Montessori school ecosystem. Unable to find a good school for his son, he simply decided to start one.

Montessori is an educational approach that emphasizes independence and respect for a child’s natural psychological and social development. Montessori school has many benefits compared to traditional big schools, but is limited by one of the key constraints that it needs to be small. How do we bring the benefits of these small schools to a large number of the population?

Sep’s answer was to create open-source software to enable the re-creation of the social processes of Montessori school. And as a result, at least 15 Wildflowers started within a year.

Closing Thoughts

I grew up playing the keyboard and was accustomed to the idea that a music should be composed with fixed tempo, linear notes and for a single player. But when I encountered a different way of composing music such as In C, it came as a surprise and totally changed my way of thinking about music.

Similarly, we are accustomed to the idea of collaboration as fixed organizations, but crowd-sourcing, gig economy may also forever change the way we think about collaboration. Ideas in art and HCI research are somehow connected, and may inspire one another.

Art + HCI: I’ll be writing a series of articles connecting ideas from art with research in HCI and social computing.


  1. UO Blogs
  2. This dad couldn’t find a good school for his son. So he started one.
  3. Montessori education