The Sony Walkman and virtual reality headsets aren’t just great examples of personal technology. In the hands of Paul Roquet, they are also vehicles for learning more about Japan, the United States, global technological trends – and ourselves.
Roquet is an associate professor in MIT’s program in Comparative Media/Writing Studies, and his forte is analyzing how new consumer technologies are changing the way people interact with their environment. In this effort, he focused on Japan, an early adopter of many post-war trends in personal technology.
For example, 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 and relaxing individual atmospheres. for the people. It gives people a sense of control, even though their moods are now influenced 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 both to close off the outside world and interact with others in networked environments. . Roquet also detailed the cross-cultural trajectories of virtual reality, which in the United States emerged from military and aeronautical applications, but in Japan they have been centered on forms of escapist entertainment.
As Roquet puts it, his work is constantly focused on “the relationship between media technologies and the perception of the environment, and how this relationship plays out differently in different cultural contexts”.
He adds: “There is a lot to be gained by trying to think about the same issues in different parts of the world.
These different cultures are linked, of course: in Japan, for example, the English musician Brian Eno had a significant influence in the understanding of ambient media. The translation of VR technologies from the United States to Japan has happened, in part, through technologists and innovators with ties to MIT. Meanwhile, Japan gave the world the Sony Walkman, its own sound box.
As such, Roquet’s work is innovative, bringing together cultural trends across different media and tracing them around the world, through the history, present and future of technology. For his research and teaching, Roquet was granted tenure at MIT earlier this year.
Paid exchange program
Roquet grew up in California, where his family moved to several different cities during his childhood. As a high school student learning Japanese in Davis, he enrolled in an exchange program with Japan, the California-Japan Scholars program, which allowed him to see the country up close. It was Roquet’s first time outside the United States and the trip had a lasting impact.
Roquet continued to study Japanese language and culture during his undergraduate studies at Pomona College; he obtained 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, much to his perplexity, that his show was being played – with unknown effects on customers – at a local car dealership.
Japanese cinema was yet another source of emerging intellectual interests for Roquet, due to the differences he perceived with mainstream American cinema.
“The storytelling often worked very differently,” says Roquet. “I found myself drawn to films where the emphasis was less on plot and more 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 of the Asia-Pacific region – including Malaysia. , Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands — as well as Canada.
“It made me realize how people’s relationship to the soundscape can be different from place to place, and how history, politics and culture shape the sensory environment,” says Pug.
He went on to earn his master’s degree in 2007 from the University of California, Berkeley, and finally his doctorate from Berkeley in 2012, with a focus on Japanese studies and a designated focus on film studies. His thesis formed the basis of his book “Ambient Media”.
After three years as an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the humanities at Stanford University and one as a postdoctoral fellow in global media at Brown University, Roquet joined the faculty at MIT in 2016. He remained at the Institute since, producing his second book, as well as a series of essays on virtual reality and other forms of environmental media.
Willingness to explore
MIT was an excellent choice, Roquet says, given his varied interests in the relationship between technology and culture.
“One thing I like about MIT is that there’s a real willingness to explore new ideas and emerging practices, even if they don’t yet fit into an established disciplinary context,” Roquet says. “MIT allows this cross-disciplinary conversation to happen because you have this place that connects everything.”
Roquet has also taught a wide range of undergraduate courses, including introductions to media studies and Japanese culture; a course on Japanese and Korean cinema; another on Japanese literature and cinema; and a digital media course in Japan and Korea. This semester, he is teaching a new course on Critical Approaches to Immersive Media Studies.
Of MIT undergraduates, Roquet notes, “They have a remarkable range of interests, which means the classroom discussions change from year to year in really interesting ways.
No matter what arouses their curiosity, they are always ready to dig deep.
Regarding his current research, Roquet explores 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 enough,” says Roquet. “There is a lot of emphasis on what virtual spaces offer the consumer, but there are always environmental and social impacts created by inserting new layers of mediation between a person and the world around them. Not to mention the manufacture of helmets that often become obsolete in a few years. »
Wherever his work takes him, Roquet will always engage in a career-long project of exploring the cultural and historical differences between countries in order to broaden our understanding of media and technology.
“I don’t want to argue that Japan is radically different from the United States. These stories are very intertwined and there’s a lot of back and forth. [between the countries], said Pug. “But also, when you pay close attention to local contexts, you can uncover critical differences in how media technologies are understood and used. These can teach us a lot and challenge our assumptions.