Book review: ‘The Quiet Zone’ by Stephen Kurczy

Can you imagine living life without your phone and the Internet? Journalist Stephen Kurczy explores a town in West Virginia where mobile coverage and WiFi are restricted by law.

Deep in the Appalachian Mountains lies the Green Bank Observatory, which is used by astronomers to search the depths of our vast universe. But in order for the observatory’s telescopes to work properly, radio frequencies in the area must be eliminated to prevent interference – the town of Green Bank thus became a ‘quiet’ town where there is a ban on electrical devices, and its residents live a life free from constant digital connectivity.

Indeed, this ‘Quiet Zone’ has gained traction from the media and curious-minds alike in recent years, but award-winning journalist Stephen Kurczy is the first to investigate this story in-depth and has shed light on some misconceptions of the town.

To research and write ‘The Quiet Zone’ (HarperCollins, £20, ISBN 9780062945495), Kurczy himself settles into the town of Green Bank, making the residents of this small Appalachian village his neighbours. And throughout his time there, he attended church services, went target shooting with a child and square-danced with the locals, among other quirky activities. He immersed himself in the community, investigating what it was truly like to live in a place where technology isn’t at the tip of his fingers.

Unlike many of us, however, Kurczy has lived without a mobile phone since 2009, so perhaps venturing out into this community would’ve been less challenging for him than, let’s say, a social media influencer. But what’s interesting is Kurczy’s rationale behind not owning a mobile phone. He writes: “More than ever, I felt I was in an ideological battle against a culture of constant connectivity, fighting the pressure to be like everyone else and get a smartphone.”

Although he discloses in the book that he eventually conceded into getting an iPad, his lack of a smartphone could have made it easier for him to immerse himself into this experience – he was already one step ahead of many of us who are likely already glued to our phones enough as it is.

In the book, Kurczy gives readers a first-person narrative of all the cast of characters he met during his say there and skilfully captures the nuances of this quirky community. And during his time there, he also finds that Green Bank’s elementary-middle school is perhaps the only school in the US That cannot have WiFi, iPads, or other wireless technology.

When setting out to explore how dependence on technology affects lives by immersing himself where it doesn’t, Kurczy discovered that not everything added up in this quaint little town. He confesses: “… It did not occur to me that a community bathed in quiet could be anything but idyllic.” And in fact, he found nearly everyone there has WiFi – including the person who drove around policing for electromagnetic interference. The laws limiting WiFi have never been enforced.

During his time at Green Bank, Kurczy also uncovers a series of strange stories about the town. He found that the area has attracted hippies and back-to-the-landers since the 1960s – including a hippie sex cult and clown physician Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams, made famous via the late Robin Williams’ eponymous 1998 film. ‘Electrosensitives,’ people convinced they suffer illnesses caused by electromagnetic hypersensitivity, flock there. One resident told Kurczy that the place is “a magnet for weirdos.”

Over four years, Kurczy realised the life he was living in Green Bank was far from tranquil and simple, but weird. In the book, he compares life to the TV show ‘Twin Peaks’. “That’s what discovering the many layers of The Quiet Zone felt like. The vision that drew me in turned out to be a mirage,” he writes.

This book is certainly a captivating read, and it’s clear that Kurczy had put in years of hard work investigating the ins and outs of the town. Indeed, it is a remarkable work of deep reporting, slightly eerie in most chapters, and may ultimately make some people ponder the question if a less connected life is more desirable, re-examining the role technology plays in our lives.

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