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Giving up technology in the name of science

Rodrigo Cokting
Staff writer

Wednesday, September 3, 2014, 1:14 PM - Can you imagine living without your cellphone? Or wireless internet? What about your microwave or radio set?

That's the reality for people living Green Bank, West Virginia. The hamlet is located within the National Radio Quiet Zone—or NRQZ—a large area of land in which radio transmissions are restricted to allow for scientific research. The zone is also home to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) which is the world's largest radio telescope.

The telescope, according to its official website, is the world's premiere single-dish radio telescope operating at meter to millimeter wavelengths. Because of its 100-meter diameter collecting area and its unblocked aperture it can provide unprecedented sensitivity.

It's used for about 6,500 hours every year—keep in mind, that a year has 8700 hours—because of its flexibility and ease of use.

While it's hard to argue that the telescope provides an invaluable service to science, it still leaves 150 residents in the dark. The NRQZ is instrumental to the use of the telescope. A cellphone can emit two to three watts when it's on but not in use. The radio telescope can detect a change much smaller than that. Not 10 or 100 times smaller but one with 32 zeroes after that. To put it into perspective, that's the change caused by a snowflake hitting the ground.

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But maintaning a radio-silent area is becoming more of a challenge. North American youth are becoming increasingly addicted to their cellphones. The nearby mountain resort is many visitor's worst nightmare. They are forced to be without their phone for their stay.

But that might not be necessarily a bad thing. Many studies find benefits on putting down your phone, from a more active lifestyle to less damage to your vision. A 2012 study from the University of Maryland found that cellphone users are less likely to engage in activities that could benefit another person or society as a whole.

“We found that the people that were on their cellphones were less likely to volunteer at a homeless shelter,” said marketing professor Rosellina Ferraro, one of the authors of the study. “On a subsequent section, we gave them a vocabulary test and penny would be donated to a charity for every word they solved correctly. They could quit at any time they wanted. People who thought about their cellphones persisted less on that.”

The results of the study don’t surprise Susan Maushart, author of The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale.

“Our networked lives are very cocooning. They encourage us to stay within our own little virtually created bubbles of contacts and concerns,” Maushart said. “The potential to be a global citizen is there but most of us default to a purely narcissistic mode, interacting only with people who are known to us.”

Maushart’s popular book chronicles the six months during which her family decided to no longer use their cellphones, laptops, iPods and other electronics.

At the end of the experimental period, they were ready to connect again but the six months had left their mark.

“I don’t think any of us could ever immerse ourselves in our media in the same unblinking way we did before,” she said.

In fact, after they switched back “on,” her son sold his gaming computer to buy a saxophone. He went on to study music professionally.

So living without technology... is that a nightmare or an undiscovered utopia?

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