We often talk about ways to escape the bombardment of push notifications, text messages and other digital distractions in our lives. But very few people in the United States -- perhaps less than 10 percent of the country's adult population -- live life without a mobile phone. Fewer probably know what it's like living off the grid.
The residents of Green Bank, West Virginia, are some of them.
The short documentary above, released Thursday on Seeker Network's YouTube channel, offers a glimpse at life in the 143-person town, where cell phone reception don't exist, WiFi is banned and other electromagnetic devices such as microwaves are restricted.
The small town lies at the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone, an area of 13,000 square miles that straddles the Virginia-West Virginia border and includes a tiny part of Maryland. The Quiet Zone was established in 1958 to minimize harmful interferences to Green Bank's National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which operates the world's largest fully steerable telescope.
It was recently announced that the telescope would be rented out to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence center at the University of California at Berkeley to aid in the search for life beyond Earth.
In one of the first scenes of the documentary, journalist Laura Ling visits the telescope and asks the principal scientist, Jay Lockman, whether residents of Green Bank ever feel as if they're living in a little bubble. Here's what he said:
Scientists and researchers are not the only inhabitants of Green Bank. Over the years, the small town has become an oasis for people who say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a condition unrecognized by the scientific community in which exposure to electromagnetic fields is thought to trigger symptoms such as headache, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, rashes and muscle pain.
"When I was using the phone, after a couple minutes, I was starting getting numb on the side of my face. So I would turn it off, but then the last time I used it, my face went numb for two weeks," Melissa Chalmers, who recently moved to Green Bank, says in the documentary. "[When I arrived in the Quiet Zone,] I felt great. At one point my whole body just relaxed."
Taking a tour of Green Bank, nestled against the backdrop of the Allegheny Mountains, is like parachuting into another era, one with coin-operated pay phones and some houses that completely lack electricity.
Yet the end of the documentary points to the fragile nature of living in the Quiet Zone: Although residents are not allowed to use wireless technology as part of their rental agreement, an NRAO technician responsible for patrolling the area reveals that there are actually 40 or 50 WiFi modems operating in the area.
"I think eventually the Zone will be threatened. People are going to want to use the technology because they want to use it," Chalmers tells Ling. "I don't know what I'll do."
For now, as CNN once put it, Green Bank remains "the quietest town in America."