Tech in translation

The Sony Walkman and virtual reality headsets are not just prominent examples of personal technology. In the hands of Paul Roquet, they’re also vehicles for learning more about Japan, the U.S., global technology trends — and ourselves.

Roquet is an associate professor in MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and his forte is analyzing how new consumer technologies change the way people interact with their environments. His focus in this effort has been Japan, an early adopter of many postwar trends in personal tech.

For instance, in his 2016 book “Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self” (University of Minnesota Press), Roquet examines how music, film, and other media have been deployed in Japan to create soothing, relaxing individual atmospheres for people. That gives people a feeling of control, even though their moods are now mediated by the products they consume.

In his 2022 book, “The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual Reality in Japan” (Columbia University Press), Roquet explored the impact of VR technologies on users, understanding these devices as tools for both closing off the outside world and interacting with others in networked settings. Roquet also detailed the cross-cultural trajectories of VR, which in the U.S. emerged out of military and aviation applications, but in Japan has been centered around forms of escapist entertainment.

As Roquet puts it, his work is steadily focused on “the relationship between media technologies and environmental perception, and how this relationship plays out differently in different cultural contexts.”

He adds: “There’s a lot to be gained by trying to think through the same questions in different parts of the world.”

Those different cultures are connected, to be sure: In Japan, for example, the English musician Brian Eno was a significant influence in the understanding of ambient media. The translation of VR technologies from the U.S. to Japan happened, in part, via technologists and innovators with MIT links. Meanwhile, Japan gave the world the Sony Walkman, a sonic enclosure of its own. 

As such, Roquet’s work is innovative, pulling together cultural trends across different media and tracing them around the globe, through the history, present, and future of technology. For his research and teaching, Roquet was granted tenure at MIT earlier this year.

Exchange program pays off

Roquet grew up in California, where his family moved around to a few different towns while he was a kid. As a high school student learning Japanese in Davis, he enrolled in an exchange program with Japan, the California-Japan Scholars program, enabling him to see the country up close. It was the first time Roquet had been outside of the U.S., and the trip had a lasting impact.

Roquet kept studying Japanese language and culture while an undergraduate at Pomona College; he earned his BA in 2003, in Asian studies and media studies. Roquet also indulged his growing fascination with atmospheric media by hosting a college radio show featuring often-experimental forms of ambient music. Soon Roquet discovered, to his bemusement, that his show was being played — with unknown effects on customers — at a local car dealership.

Japanese film was still another source of Roquet’s emergent intellectual interests, due to the differences he perceived with mainstream U.S. cinema.

“The storytelling would often function very differently,” Roquet says. “I found myself drawn to films where there was less of an emphasis on plot, and more emphasis on atmosphere and space.”

After college, Roquet won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and immediately spent a year on an ambitious research project, investigating what the local soundscape meant to residents across the Asia-Pacific region — including Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands — as well as Canada.

“It made me aware of how different people’s relationship to the soundscape can be from one place to another, and how history, politics, and culture shape the sensory environment,” Roquet says.

He then earned his MA in 2007 from the University of California at Berkeley, and ultimately his PhD from Berkeley in 2012, with a focus on Japan Studies and a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies. His dissertation formed the basis of his “Ambient Media” book.

Following three years as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, at Stanford University, and one as a postdoc in global media at Brown University, Roquet joined the MIT faculty in 2016. He has remained at the Institute since, producing his second book, as well as a range of essays on VR and other forms of environmental media.

Willingness to explore

MIT has been an excellent fit, Roquet says, given his varied interests in the relationship between technology and culture.

“One thing I love about MIT is there’s a real willingness to explore newly emerging ideas and practices, even if they may not be situated in an established disciplinary context yet,” Roquet says. “MIT allows that interdisciplinary conversation to take place because you have this location that ties everything together.”

Roquet has also taught a wide range of undergraduate classes, including introductions to media studies and to Japanese culture; a course on Japanese and Korean cinema; another on Japanese literature and cinema; and a course on digital media in Japan and Korea. This semester he is teaching a new course on critical approaches to immersive media studies. 

Of MIT’s undergraduates, Roquet notes, “They have a remarkable range of interests, and this means class discussions shift from year to year in really interesting ways.

Whatever sparks their curiosity, they are always ready to dig deep.”

When it comes to his ongoing research, Roquet is exploring how the increasing use of immersive media works to transform a society’s relationship with the existing physical landscape.

“These kinds of questions are not asked nearly enough,” Roquet says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on what virtual spaces offer to the consumer, but there are always  environmental and social impacts created by inserting new layers of mediation between a person and their surrounding world. Not to mention by manufacturing headsets that often become obsolete within a couple years.”

Wherever his work takes him, Roquet will still be engaging in a career-long project of exploring the cultural and historical differences among countries in order to expand our understanding of media and technology.

“I don’t want to make the argument that Japan is radically different from the U.S. These histories are very intertwined, and there’s a lot of back and forth [between the countries],” Roquet says. “But also, when you pay close attention to local contexts you can uncover critical differences in how media technologies are understood and put to use. These can teach us a lot, and challenge our assumptions.”