Life Without Facebook or Smartphones in America’s Quiet Zone


It seems now more difficult than ever to imagine a world without the internet and online devices. We use these devices every day, and it seems almost unimaginable for many younger people to remember there was a time when people weren’t dependent on smartphones and laptops.

While for the vast majority of Americans this far-fetched world exists only in their imaginations, it is absolute reality for one small town. In Green Bank, West Virginia life has taken a somewhat uncommon direction.

Wi-Fi is limited and cell signals are nonexistent in Green Bank and surrounding towns. Local restrictions on such things allow the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope to operate nearby. This telescope is located at the Green Bank Observatory and it needs an area free of interference from radio waves in order to work. These towns are in what’s called the National Radio Quiet Zone, established by the federal government in 1958. Green Bank and other nearby towns are subject to these regulations, which are even more strict within 10 miles of the observatory, where Green Bank lies. Even microwaves are banned from use unless inside a Faraday cage.

Living in the quiet zone has its problems. A person cannot use a cellphone to call for help in a possible accident or some other predicament. Students in the quiet zone have found it to be a hassle to fulfill requirements for college, like applications and exams.

The town’s residents, however, have become accustomed to living without the technology that is an increasingly pervasive part of American society. Calls are made from phone booths or landlines, paper maps are used for directions, and people interact face-to-face—in real life.

Youth in the quiet zone spend their childhoods without the pressures of social media and cyberbullying. In some households a computer is the only device with internet connection, which is often slow or spotty. One Green Bank teen, Charity Warder, has an iPhone, but only uses it as a clock and calculator. Even as some people in the quiet zone farther away from the observatory have access to Wi-Fi, most teens choose to spend time outside, exploring, climbing trees, and running, or maybe reading at the library.

The role of technology in human lives is still hotly debated, even as these technologies have become an integrated and normalized part of our everyday lives. But they can also add stress and anxiety to our lives. This current crisis might be a good time to try going off the grid—even for just one day. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from a small town in West Virginia about what it’s like to live in a quiet zone.

And maybe we can learn a few things about ourselves.

[Sources: The New York Times; NPR; Associated Press]

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