The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Even in the federal ‘Quiet Zone,’ the digital din hijacks people’s brains

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope as seen from a rural highway on the outside perimeter of the telescope complex in Green Bank, W.Va., in June 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Stephen Kurczy, the author of “The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence,” lives in Woodstock Valley, Conn.

Do you ever dream of a digital dead zone, with email uncheckable, social media unread, personal data unsold?

I’m not talking about an area with spotty cell service or a friend’s house where you don’t know the WiFi password. I mean somewhere disconnected not by accident but on purpose.

I thought I had found it five years ago when I visited the National Radio Quiet Zone, established in 1958 to protect the United States’ first federal radio astronomy observatory, in Green Bank, W.Va.

Just as optical astronomy requires a dark sky to see the heavens, radio astronomy requires a quiet environment to detect radio waves emitted by objects in space. The eight huge dishes now in Green Bank include the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, with a diameter of 330 feet.

The Quiet Zone encompasses 13,000 square miles, with the radio restrictions strictest around Green Bank. The federal code requires cell providers to seek the observatory’s permission before installing antennas in the Quiet Zone. For Green Bankers, that means cell service is essentially outlawed. WiFi is also restricted, according to a narrow interpretation of a 1956 state law that created an extra-quiet 10-mile zone around the observatory, with rulebreakers subject to a $50 daily fine.

At first glance, Green Bank offers a tantalizingly simple solution to today’s digital dystopia: Live more quietly. That’s what drew me to Green Bank, and why I decided to write a book about life there.

The town’s evocation of a more analog time — Green Bank is “the perfect place to put your phone down and enjoy the simple things in life,” West Virginia’s tourism website says — has drawn plenty of media attention. It’s the place where smartphone use is “potentially prosecutable by law” (CNN said in 2015) and WiFi is “unavailable and banned” (the New York Times said in 2020).

I think such articles keep coming out because we all want to believe there’s still one place where we can get away from it all, like the “savage reservation” free of technology in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

But I found a messier reality in the Quiet Zone.

Most people around Green Bank do have smartphones. Most homes there do have WiFi; residents simply call their telecom provider to ask for a hookup. Nobody has been levied a $50 fine, and it’s debated whether that 1956 state law applies to modern technology such as WiFi and smartphones.

Visitors might encounter large dead zones, but locals know where to find public hotspots provided by restaurants and businesses, as well as on which hilltops to get a bar or two of cellular connection. It’s becoming more economical to install cell antennas in remote areas such as the Appalachian Mountains, and that’s okay so long as they don’t interfere with Green Bank’s telescopes.

More problematically, because the Quiet Zone laws apply only to ground-based transmitters, the observatory has little recourse against satellites that beam interference into Green Bank and blur the telescopes’ window into the radio universe. Astronomer Felix “Jay” Lockman told me that when it came to the observatory’s fight against radio pollution, “You can’t just hide in a place like Green Bank anymore.”

That’s a depressing revelation for people who believe they suffer from an illness called electromagnetic hypersensitivity that makes them allergic to WiFi and cell signals. Many of them from around the world have fled to the Quiet Zone seeking an offline oasis.

“People come here thinking there’s no WiFi because of the media,” one electrosensitive woman told me. “It’s hurting people.”

The notion that a pastoral enclave of Appalachia exists in blissful digital disconnection might be appealing, but it’s a mirage. Parents and teachers told me about feeling addicted to their wireless devices. I didn’t find a single teenager without a smartphone.

The nation’s vast open spaces still offer havens from the digital din, where cell signals and fiber-optic cable can’t reach. But even those refuges will likely vanish if Elon Musk achieves his dream of blanketing the planet with Internet access from more than 1,000 satellites in low-earth orbit. Amazon (founded by Post owner Jeff Bezos) is working on a similar project.

In short, there’s no running away from it. I’ve tried to, in my way, by not owning a cellphone for the past decade. But I now have two young sons. In coming years, they will surely want to be plugged into the metaverse or whatever irreality comes next.

People will need to fight for a degree of digital quietude. Some of the battle will be in the courts, as with the lawsuit filed in November by Ohio’s attorney general against Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, which the suit says misled the public about the platform’s safety and “exploited its most vulnerable users,” including children.

But ultimately the burden is on every individual to try to muffle the online cacophony. On the evidence of Green Bank, opting out is nearly impossible.

But confronting the noise? That’s essential.