When New York production company Partisan Pictures was given the task to film and produce a three-part series about technology and the Internet, the crew searched for interesting stories to include and came across Green Bank – the small town at the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone.
It didn’t take long for Partisan Pictures president, producer, director and cinema- tographer Peter Schnall to decide Green Bank needed to be part of the project.
“As we were looking around for really cool and interesting and unusual stories about technology, we bumped into a story – online, of course – about Green Bank, and we thought, ‘how interesting,’” Schnall said. “What a sort of opposite tale to the rapid and sort of pell mell pace and changes in technology, and how it affects us on a daily basis – from cellphones to the Internet to just our daily lives inundated more and more with technological marvels and wonders to the point where, to a certain extent, it impedes on our daily life.
“We spend so much time staring down at these tablets and phones, and yet, here’s a story about a place in a very quiet, rural small town, and it’s not that life has stood still – life is very much moving in a normal pace here,” he continued. “Green Bank is not much different than anywhere else in America but there is a very sort of slower technological journey all having to do with the Green Bank Telescope.”
Schnall, along with producer Emily Harrold, cameraman Reuben Pacheco and sound editor Aaron Scott Webster, came to Green Bank last week to meet with and interview residents about life without cellphones and constant connectivity.
The crew filmed at Henry’s Quick Stop, Trent’s, Community Care and Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, and visited with several individuals.
For three New Yorkers and one Washington D.C.er, spending a week in Green Bank was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of being in constant contact through their cellphones.
Schnall said it was a welcoming and eye-opening experience to have a silent phone in his pocket.
“I think the easiest way to describe how it’s been to be here without cellphones ringing and texts pinging is, when I told my colleagues and friends that I was heading out to Green Bank and that I would have no cellphone service, what most of them said to me was, ‘you’re so lucky,’” Schnall said. “And I said, ‘cool, you’re right; I am lucky.’ My focus is on what we’re doing, not who’s trying to reach me.”
While there are some obvious drawbacks to no cellphone service – number one being he could not keep in contact with his two daughters – Schnall said he was reminded of his childhood when cellphones and the Internet didn’t exist.
“You can go a day without knowing exactly who did what,” he said. “I grew up in a time when there were no cellphones and you couldn’t reach somebody until you were home or until you went to the pay phone. If you needed to reach somebody, sometimes, you had to go down the street and knock on their door.
“It’s not like Green Bank has returned to any past,” he continued. “It’s sort of like the past, present and future is all wrapped up in one in the sense that you can go for hours or a day without being on your cellphone, without being on the Internet.”
In addition to talking with residents, the crew visited the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to learn more about the facility and the telescopes – the main reason for the Quiet Zone.
Schnall said he enjoyed the contrast of beautiful scenery mixed with a technological giant like the Green Bank Telescope.
“I think that’s also part of the interesting irony about Green Bank and the radio telescope,” he said. “The environment, the location – the rolling hills, the stunning sort of landscape is an interesting contrast first to the telescope itself and the fact that it’s searching for answers to the universe a mere thirty million lightyears away. I like that.”
As he interviewed GBT Principal Scientist Dr. Jay Lockman, Schnall said the NRAO itself is another great example of the past, present and future coexisting much like the town it calls home.
“I was talking to Jay Lockman yesterday and I said, ‘what’s interesting is you’re looking at the past – when you look at the light from the Milky Way, when you look at the galaxies you’re studying and the things that the radio telescope is showing you for the very first time, you’re looking at the past,’” Schnall said. “And yet, here’s the present. Just right down across the street is the present place in this small little town, and the answers that [Lockman] hopes to find through his work with the radio telescope is about the future.
“So the past, present and future are all sort of swirling around this place all the time,” he continued.
The project, which will be a three-part series of one-hour segments, was commissioned by CuriosityStream, a video on demand website founded by Discovery Channel creator John Hendricks. The series will air on CuriosityStream as well as National PBS stations sometime in the summer or fall of 2016.
“Each [segment] looks at different aspects of the past, present and future of technology,” Schnall said. “Everything from social media to the Internet to how technology and the Internet are changing our daily lives – in our house, in our car.”
The series will also explore the seedy side of Internet including cyber crime and hacking.
After leaving Green Bank, the crew will travel to Amsterdam to meet with a man who is building a house using 3D printed materials. They will also film in a technologically advanced city in South Korea.
Throughout his career Schnall has traveled the world, met people from all walks of life and, in the process, has won seven Emmys and a Peabody Award for his documentaries.
He may not carry a part of every location with him, but he will carry an important lesson he learned in Green Bank.
“I think that being here for a whole week has reminded me that life can slow down, even in a fast-paced city like New York, and you don’t have to be connected every minute of every hour of every day,” he said. “I’m totally enjoying not seeing who emailed me every hour on the hour and who texted me on the hour every hour.”