Tech Note:
In the Quiet Zone
24 June 2019

¶ Above the Times headline, ghostly letters say, “To Find Real Solitude, You Have to Go Out of Range.” The story, by Pagan Kennedy, is about — or at least set in — the National Radio Quiet Zone, in and around Green Bank, West Virginia. At the center of this 13,000 square mile preserve stands the Green Bank Observatory, a campus of ultra-sensitive radio telescopes designed to detect the sound of a pin dropping on Alpha Centauri. Because the electro-magnetic waves generated microwave ovens, wifi networks (this means smartphones), and other supposedly indispensable appliances can short-circuit the observatory’s sensitive equipment, their use is not permitted within the Zone, home to about 150 people. Kennedy writes, 

I came in hopes of finding a certain kind of wildness and solitude.

While I must acknowledge that there is no wildness, at least above the occasional mouse, in my Yorkville apartment, I do quite well, I think, for solitude, even with a microwave and a wifi network. And a smartphone. My smartphone spends most of its time in my pocket, or face down on a tabletop (to protect its screen). Since I do not use it to read mail of any kind, but only to receive text messages and actual phone calls — and I don’t get many of either — I do not have occasion to look at the smartphone very often. I long ago (long before cellphones) learned that I don’t care for extended telephone conversations; too much vital human information is missing. And if Skype and FaceTime are the best we can do, there is very extensive room for improvement. At the same time, phones produce too much information, which may be why younger people prefer text messages: Just the texts, ma’am

Mr Holstine said that here in Green Bank, “I use the internet, and then I walk away.” But on the outside, people are “connected all the time,” he added. “They get a text and have to look at it. For a lot of people, the choice seems like it has disappeared. The phone is part and parcel to everything they do, including work. It’s the tail wagging the dog.” 

After a few days here, almost entirely off-line, I felt I knew what he meant: The world outside the mountains now seemed mad to me, too.

I am heartened to report that, when I look down onto 87th Street from my balcony, most of the people on the sidewalk, even those walking alone, appear not to be holding smartphones, much less looking at them. Perhaps this is because they are carrying shopping or pushing strollers. But they don’t appear to be impatient with their full-hands situations. On the contrary, they seem as content as anyone can be with daily life in Manhattan. 

(The hip people are said to live on the other side of 14th Street. They’re welcome to it.)

It’s true that I will drop anything to take a call from my wife, Kathleen — heralded by the Bell Tower ringtone that elates me even before I hear her voice. I would find it difficult to manage in the National Radio Quiet Zone if she were not with me. Happily, I don’t have to go to West Virginia for peace and quiet. Growing up with an ever-louder and more rackety media barrage (starting with car radios and those incredibly annoying telephone rings), I’ve learned to weed my life of unwanted noise and other intrusions. You don’t have to do without the modcons. You simply have to discover how much nicer it is to manage with less from them. 

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