This loss of silence on the radio coincided with loss of sound silence. In 2000, the director of the U.S. National Park Service issued a decree on “sound landscape conservation and noise management” requiring parks to document and work on the conservation of natural sounds. The directive expired in 2004. Three years later, when the iPhone debuted, Science reported that man-made noise pollution is “ubiquitous” in protected areas of America. Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hampton believes there are a dozen places left in the United States where a person cannot hear man-made sounds for 15 minutes. More than annoying, such noise has been shown to increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and even cancer. The simultaneous rise in radio noise has also had deadly effects, with heavy smartphone use linked to depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, teen suicides and, not surprisingly, motor vehicle accidents.
Wouldn’t there be fewer collisions and deaths if it was impossible to drive and send text messages at the same time? Wouldn’t we all sleep better to live in a place without constant connection? Wouldn’t our lives be richer and our communities stronger if we weren’t always online? And if all these benefits of a less digitized life were true, wouldn’t Green Bank and the surrounding Silent Zone be some kind of utopia?
Those questions took me to Appalachia, across snowy mountain passes and down a steep curve, into the rugged abyss of Daniel Boone and Stonewall Jackson, into the heart of the National Radio Silence Zone, looking for an alternative to our technology-obsessed phone, addicted, distracted, doomscrolling society. When I first arrived in 2017, the observatory hosted about 30 media visitors a year, and a series of articles about the so-called quietest city in America were published regularly. Tense days could see three film crews crammed into Robert C. Byrd’s Green Bank telescope, all competing for shots of that most endangered thing: silence.
After the initial visiting Green Bank with Jenna, I returned a dozen times over the next three years to a series of extended stays, which came so often that people asked me if I had moved there permanently. I joined a book club, helped build a house, found food for the ramps, and started shooting with a seven-year-old. I visited a small village church where the wall “Register of Presence and Offer” was never updated; it always wrote that there were 11 present and $ 79 in tens, contributing to the feeling that time was at a standstill, that it was drawn into a quieter dimension.
It was also a place of contradictions. Shortly after my patrol with Chuck Niday, CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta drove to Green Bank for an episode Vital signs. “The national radio-quiet zone,” Gupta told the camera, “that means no mobile service, no Wi-Fi, no radio. It’s really quiet. “On her heels, Katie Couric visited the National Geographic series. “Green Bank is a city where technology is almost completely banned,” she said in a clear voice when the series aired, and later stated, “People here seem happy to follow the country’s laws.”
Even the highest state officials got involved in a quiet uproar. “Not all people within 20 miles of a facility can have any device that emits a noticeably large amount of electromagnetic radiation,” Senator Joe Manchin would write in the 2018 edition. “This includes WiFi routers, cell phones, and even microwave ovens. Yet these faithful West Virginians sacrificed all that luxury for the advancement of science. ”
Teresa Mullen rolled her eyes at such language. A Green Bank resident and a high school teacher had a microwave oven. She had a smartphone. She had Wi-Fi. She knew where to get a cell phone signal. “It’s not that we live some bohemian lifestyle,” she told me. That was hardly a secret. The house across from the observatory had Wi-Fi with the network name “Screw you NRAO,” an inconspicuous middle finger to the observatory’s calls for silence. The Green Bank Health Clinic had Wi-Fi. The older center did the same. “We shouldn’t,” said John Simmons, the district’s senior program director and former commissioner, “but I think all these things about noise levels are made up.”