What Zone Fiction can Teach us About “No-Interruption Zones” in Hospitals

This analysis has since been expanded here.

The Soviet movie Stalker (1979) popularised “The Zone” in science fiction. The trope has now become so ingrained in sci-fi narratives that you might not even notice it anymore. The Zone is an alien place where mysterious anomalies happen and this causes all kinds of social upheaval. Think of movies like Annihilation (2018) or games like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series (2007-2009) or the Metro series (2010-2019). The concept works great in sci-fi because it provides mystery and intrigue as the protagonist unravels what goes on inside this zone. Usually, this zone (sometimes a vault) supposedly holds a technology of great power or an existential threat to humanity.

Because “The Zone” features so prominently in contemporary culture and in the public psyche, we can a lot about how we should think about how people experience zones from zone fiction.

The Zone Concept

Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker is a film about a prohibited space reminiscent of a wasteland after a nuclear accident. Inside the Zone, there are supposedly debris/trash after aliens visiting earth (having a roadside picnic on earth). In the centre of the Zone is a room where it is claimed that all your desires will be fulfilled by the mystical alien objects. A Stalker is a person who smuggles people into The Zone space to interact with the magical, alien objects. Supposedly, the alien debris will fulfil the deepest wishes of the person who can reach them.

A game level from Metro Exodus probably inspired by the movie Stalker

The point of Stalker (and the book Roadside Picnic on which it is based) is that people cannot really know or formulate their own desires when they finally reach the centre. The search for the truth in the middle of the zone is thus also an inner discovery. Joyssance, the constant and painful search for happiness, is here a black hole that can only be described in general terms: when the protagonist of Roadside Picnic finally reaches the alien objects, he discovers that his desires can only be formulated in the broadest sense as “Happiness for all ... Free!”. The Zone has this mythic function as a plane which people can project their dreams and beliefs. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2006) interprets the zone in the same vain:

There is nothing specific about the Zone. It's purely a place where a certain limit is set. You set a limit, you put a certain zone off-limit, and although things remain exactly the way they were, it's perceived as another place. Precisely as the place onto which you can project your beliefs.

Tarkovsky (quoted in Žižek 1999) himself also argued for this interpretation in an evaluation of his film:

I am often asked what does this Zone stand for. There is only one possible answer: the Zone doesn't exist. Stalker himself invented his Zone. He created it, so that he would be able to bring there some very unhappy persons and impose on them the idea of hope. The room of desires is equally Stalker's creation, yet another provocation in the face of the material world. This provocation, formed in Stalker's mind, corresponds to an act of faith.

So the zone is a place where an arbitrary limit is set and that therefore becomes open to interpretation.

A Lesson for Interruptions Research

Image credit: Alliance Global Graphics

So what does this have to do with hospital medicine rooms? Well, in my observation studies of medication practices in danish hospitals, I discovered that most medicine rooms are considered “No-interruption zones”. On one door to a medicine room I saw the peculiar sign: “Disturbance-free ZONE”, indicating that the medicine room was a special work zone where interruptions could cause hazards. But why was the word “ZONE” capitalised in the sign? Should it not be “DISTURBANCE-FREE” that should be capitalised? Instead, “ZONE” was capitalised on the sign and it made me ponder this small detail for way too long. Why had the sign maker (probably a nurse manager) emphasised the word zone? Here is my wild interpretation of this text:

In correspondence with the above Zone fiction idea of zones as an open space for people to project their own ideas, it is interestering to note that clinical studies of No-Interruption Zone rarely define meaning of the space. It remains mysterious in the scientific literature. In fact, I have found no sources that include definitions of what constitutes a no-interruption space. Is it silence? Or maybe a space with no task switching? Instead, studies only define the NIZ by what it lacks (the “No-“). As noted above, a space that is off-limit and only characterised by this limitation is open to interpretation. Studies then rely on a semantic exercise where they hope that hospital staff will interpret the word interruption on a west or sign as a warning not to correspond with the individual in the no-interruption zone. In practice though, no-interruption zones are interpreted differently by nurses’ and doctors’ as they bring in their own ideas about what constitutes interruptions. As one nurse explained to me during my observations: ‘The no-interruption zone is for not having patients disturb us’ even though patient disturbances are not mentioned in hospital guidelines. Why did the nurses have this narrow interpretation of the Zone as a patient-free area? The no-interruption zone is so semantically vague that it can mean anything and come to provide a space for “ontological drift” (Purdom 2019).

I think few researchers that experiment with no-interruption zones are aware that the zone is interpreted very differently by nurses and doctors than intended by researchers. If we learn one thing from Stalker and other Zone fiction, it is that openness to interpretation is the nature of the zone.


References

Purdom, C. (2019). A brief history of The Zone, the sci-fi idea that swallows everything. AVClub, Link.

Žižek, S. (1999). The Thing from Inner Space. Lacan.com, Link.

Žižek, S. (2006). The Perverts Guide to Cinema. Documentary.

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi