Alexa, will digital technology save arts and culture, or water it down?

The Franklin Institute is using augmented reality technology for its current exhibition on the Terracotta Warriors.

Walking along Walnut Street on a recent Saturday night, I reached Broad in the clouds of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I had put on the earbuds a few blocks back, and the sounds colored everything I saw. By the time the second movement arrived, the cast of characters hanging out in front of the Wawa looked more picturesque than indigent. College students bar-hopping took on overtones of the promise of youth.

The music was making my reality. It was the city sensed through rose-colored Elgar.

Here was one case in which technology — WRTI’s excellent and relatively new app that streams classical music and jazz 24 hours a day — served as a useful gateway to culture. But was it? The experience was gorgeous. It was hard, though, not to conclude later that it was also superficial. Music reveals itself in layers, in knowing the meaning behind the notes, and taking in music as a soundtrack to something else delivered perhaps 20 percent of what the Elgar had to offer.

Cultural leaders in this country are never at a loss for things to worry about, but the lure of the virtual world over the physical has their attention, and for good reason. Life online has eaten away at our attention span, many believe. People deprived of their cellphones begin to shake like junkies. A recent study of Facebook users likens the charge delivered to the brain through social media stimulus to gambling and substance addiction. Can culture, which requires deep contemplation and rewards that play out over a much longer time, really compete?

It’s trying. Many groups have hired chief digital officers to help deliver and interpret their concerts, collections, and exhibitions for the digital denizen.

The Franklin Institute offers an augmented reality mobile app for its current Terracotta Warriors exhibition. The museum aims to launch an artificial intelligence platform on Alexa next month that at first will allow users to say, “Ask the Franklin Institute what time it opens today,” but that is expected to build skills over time to answer general science questions.

Composer Tod Machover is using technology to write music, asking Philadelphians to download an app and record sounds of the city to be woven into his Philadelphia Voices. Eastern State Penitentiary has a fairly sophisticated online tour that allows you to click on map points, read corresponding historical information, and self-direct your view through rooms.

One of the best marriages of culture and technology has to be Jonathan Biss’ ongoing online courses on the Beethoven piano sonatas, and it works entirely because of him. The Curtis Institute of Music pianist has been so deeply involved with these pieces for so long that he has, beyond conveying the facts, a palpably emotional need to tell you all about it.

Camera icon Curtis Institute of Music
Curtis Institute of Music pianist Jonathan Biss has led online courses on the Beethoven piano sonatas for Coursera.

Technology, of course, has been a connector for culture since before music was taken from the concert hall, etched into shellac, and sent out into living rooms across the globe. But the technology is accelerating as institutions compete harder for smaller slices of the attention pie, raising some critical questions.

The obvious one is whether there is a decent return on investment. Digital transformation takes tremendous institutional energy. Is it paying off in increased ticket sales and donations? The Barnes Foundation and Drexel University developed a “Keys to the Collection” app with video-game-style graphics to lead 7- to 14-year-old patrons on a virtual tour/game through the Barnes collection. It was funded in part with a $245,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, according to a Drexel news release when the initiative began.

Launched in September 2014, the app was retired in March 2017. The technology had become dated and would have needed to be overhauled to work on newer devices, a spokeswoman said last week. “That work was significant, and we felt we needed to move our efforts to other projects with broader reach,” like a new collection online project, she said.

Camera icon WRTI
WRTI’s relatively new app puts many of the station’s offerings in your pocket.

Harder to know than the payoff in ticket sales and donations is the question of whether new digital tools are really getting us any closer to the art and culture itself. Do these new toys add to our understanding, or are they a destination in and of themselves? Does the ability to see Eastern State online supplant our desire to visit?

Of course, there is more than one kind of return on investment. The Chemical Heritage Foundation can’t say that its free ChemCrafter app, downloaded more than a million times, has brought in gifts, but as Shelley Geehr, director of the foundation’s Roy Eddleman Institute, points out, it has brought visitors in the digital door: “Teachers found the app and then explored resources on our website,” she said.

Some think culture is already late to the digital game.

“The culture industry has to adapt to meet visitors where they are,” says Susan Poulton, the Franklin Institute’s chief digital officer. “The expectation of visitors and how they interact with things is going to change. They are going to expect to interact with their devices because that is how they are interacting with the rest of the world.”

Poulton — who says she believes technology is, in fact, reducing our attention span — says museums must use technology to become more relevant.

“Ideally, I would love to see us move in a direction where when you walk into the Changing Earth exhibit you are seeing a seamless digital interface. All of that information is delivered in context, so it’s not just explaining how earthquakes happen, but also letting you know there was an earthquake in Mexico last night, so you are connecting the science content with this relevant news.”

There’s something else seamless digital engagement brings. When the curious use Alexa to query the Franklin Institute, the Franklin Institute will get information in return — what the questions are, how they are being phrased, and some basic demographics about the person asking.

Will the Franklin Institute use responses to help determine programming?

Poulton says, “There will always be a role for editorial curation on our side.” But, she adds: “I think it has to be a two-way street.”

As they navigate the digital waters, cultural groups will have to arrive at a sensible test for whether their core offerings are being well-served by new digital delivery systems and interpretive aids. If an initiative can create a deeper bond with the art on the walls or with a Bruckner symphony — or a profoundly human Elgar Violin Concerto — more than likely, it represents real progress.