It’s an Internet-lite existence in Green Bank, West Virginia. At first, one might expect this small town (population, 143) isolated in the Allegheny Mountains, dotted by farmhouses and barns from centuries past, to be like any other of its kind – the last to get the newest technology. But then, in jarring contrast at the center of it all, stands the real reason why: the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the world’s largest of its kind, harbouring some of the most sophisticated technologies available on the planet today.
The GBT towers 485 feet above the town like a statue of a modern technological god, giving shape to the lives of everyone within its 13,000 square mile territory, designated the National Radio Quiet Zone. But this quiet zone has nothing to do with mountain folk playing their banjos too loud; the ban is on electromagnetic frequencies and the devices that use them. Green Bank does in fact have modern technology in the form of its telescopes – there are seven altogether on campus – but this tech is so sensitive and specialized that most other modern technologies have been sacrificed for it.
In other words, your smartphone, tablet and wireless laptop aren’t going to connect here.
Why? The electromagnetic signals emitted by these devices and their networks would compete with, and drown out, the deep-space signals this telescope is designed to detect. Not an ordinary ocular telescope, the ultra-sensitive GBT has a highly sought-after specialized ability to pick up on the weakest, faintest signals from the farthest reaches of space. To help protect the integrity of its results, it can’t have any interference from nearby electromagnetic signals – thus, the Quiet Zone. The ban is enforced by technicians who regularly patrol the community, on the lookout for rogue electromagnetic signals that can occur from devices newly introduced to the market, as well as the human tendency to continue trying to use the devices anyway.
The restrictions on cell phones and Internet have led to a creative response within residents of Green Bank. While most homes use dial-up modems or Ethernet to access the web, some teenagers have reportedly setup Wi-Fi that flies under the radar, allowing them to chat using peer to peer sites like Facebook and bypass the need for text messaging on a mobile network.
But for those in need of cell connectivity, AT&T has answered the call with an approved installation at Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, in the heart of the Quiet Zone. This complex feat was achieved with three miles of fiberoptic cable and 180 antennas placed around the resort, creating short distances for signals to travel. Smartphones in use at the resort also emit less than a milliwatt of power – down from 500 milliwatts emitted by ordinary use. These measures keep levels of radio wave interference extremely low, proving that where there’s a will — and enough money to fund it, thanks in this case to the tourism industry – there’s a way.
Yes, Green Bank has a tourism industry, not only for winter sports and outer space enthusiasts, but a niche market that has developed precisely because of its Quiet Zone (so these guests probably won’t be staying at this particular resort, after all).
Since 2007, people who, somewhat like the telescope itself, are sensitive to electromagnetic frequencies have flocked to Green Bank and found relief from their symptoms. Though not exactly understood by mainstream doctors, the condition known as “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity” has been attributed to electromagnetic fields generated from cell phones and towers, smart meters, Wi-Fi networks, and even fluorescent lightbulbs. Symptoms such as headaches, swelling, redness, nausea and insomnia, in the most extreme cases have been debilitating enough to send sufferers in search of greener pastures.
Green Bank has proven to be the safe space they needed in order to establish healthy, productive lives – though interactions with longstanding residents haven’t always been safe themselves. Clashes between locals and newcomers, with at least one escalating to police intervention, have marked the town’s growing pains, as its population may have ballooned to 244 with the influx of new “electrosensitive” residents.
This isn’t the first time the town has seen a merger of then and now: in 1957, a similar situation occurred when the campus was first built, bringing in droves of scientists. Townspeople weren’t so welcoming then either; farmers accused the scientists of causing a drought (and crop failure) with their newfangled technology.
But generations have passed, and both sides mellowed into accommodating each other. Area residents have found jobs on the Observatory’s campus, and government scientists moonlight as artists, their works on display in town.
Likewise, progress has been made between longtime residents and electro sensitive newcomers by forming bonds of friendship, with both sides willing to give a little. Case in point, electrosensitive Monique Grimes, who has adapted particularly well to country life in Green Bank. She’s married a local, works hard on the homestead, and has inspired (important: not demanded) her Green Bank friends to voluntarily change their lightbulbs, simply because they enjoy the presence of her own inner, natural light.
But even residents who are not electrosensitive appreciate the respite from the mass cultural pressure that having a smartphone has created. There’s no need to carry a cell phone with you at all times, no urge to check it again and again, nothing to keep your face in a screen and take you away from the moment. Residents have found a pleasant relief in being free to engage in real life again.