Modern Technology and Our Longing for Belonging

Eric Jacobsen’s new book, Three Pieces of Glass, explores how the car, television, and smartphone undermine belonging in America today.

All human beings want to belong. Indeed, in his good wisdom, God made each and every person to crave and thrive in relationship. To provide a portrait of what belonging looks like, pastor and author Eric Jacobsen starts his new book Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated By Screens by recalling the famous 1980s and ’90s television series Cheers. The show became popular because it resonated so well with audiences and their desire to belong. “Viewers remained loyal,” writes Jacobsen, “because they longed for a place where they were known well enough to be greeted on arrival by name.”

If each person longs to belong the way the main character Norm belonged in Cheers, how has the loneliness epidemic reached such crippling proportions? While some rightly acknowledge changing demographic and familial patterns such as low birth rates and increased divorce rates, Jacobsen argues that the answer lies with three pieces of technology: the car, the television, and the smartphone. These machines have shaped the built environment in ways that are hostile to place and belonging and altered the rhythms and patterns of our relationships in ways that have eroded our social capital. As Jacobsen puts it, “these three pieces of glass represent key choices we’ve made at the societal and individual levels to devalue face-to-face contact with other people for the sake of efficiency, autonomy, and entertainment.”

It’s not just these three pieces of technology that have provoked our crisis of belonging. Jacobsen would have done well to show how our relationship with all technology belies a tendency to rid ourselves of the “need” for others, and ultimately drives us further apart from each other and God. Nevertheless, he offers a compelling vision for how to overcome the deleterious effects of our technology. In addition to cataloguing how the three pieces of glass have shaped society, the book functions as a theology of the unconditional, covenantal, and transformative nature of Kingdom belonging—a belonging premised on loving neighbor as self and being attentive to what is local.

Today, just as in the days of the Babylonian captivity, the church will find its welfare in the welfare of the city. Understanding how technology is prone to move us away from God and each other can help us maximize its benefits (of which there are many) and mitigate its harms. Only then can we successfully create places, both in the church and the city, that foster belonging. Places where everyone knows your name.

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