Between hope and despair: pursuing long-term societal change in times of high speed

Year of production: 2024

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We live in a society in which digitalisation plays a central role in our everyday lives. While entering the 21st century, it was argued that new information technologies would play a shaping role. This argument turned into reality as digitalisation became an important part of everyday life and a priority for European states. An important turning point for this digitalisation process was the COVID-19 pandemic. With the pandemic, digital platforms proved to be essential for activities such as education, work, and social interactions. However, with this intensity of the digitalisation of societies, the boundaries between private and public life as well as between the online and offline worlds became blurred.

Digital participation, or participation through the use of digital tools including information and communication technology (ICT) and social media, has become a part of everyday life, enabling individuals to influence and engage with political and civic processes. While digital participation offers important opportunities of using digital tools, we are also witnessing important risks and challenges.


We have witnessed the use of digital tools broadening the scope of participation opportunities and proving to have important benefits for fostering participation and the inclusion of different individuals in political and civic life (for a more detailed discussion of these benefits, see Şerban & Lüküslü, 2024). We have also seen how hope for change has been used as a key concept in the literature on social movements (Harvey 2000 , Castells 2015) and how digital tools have been viewed as tools enabling social change. Hope has largely been discussed as a positive individual response, and also as a collective response, as a motivating force for change. In the words of Sara Ahmed “Within much of the critical literature, hope is assumed to be the engine of change and transformation.” This is why hope has been seen as indispensable for social movements opting for change. For social movements criticizing the present and willing to change it, digitalization played an important role.

  • Reaching large audiences and fostering participation: Online tools and platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, online fundraising and online petitions have allowed people to organize themselves around common causes and to reach larger audiences. Countless social movements and non-governmental organizations and initiatives have used digital tools for various reasons including but not limited to raising awareness, fundraising, or circulating online petitions. Video games have also been proven to provide the potential of serving as digital tools for fostering participation, especially in the case of youth participation.
  • Lowering costs of participation: Besides the costs that come with the usage – equipment and connection, individuals do not have to spend additional financial means into joining online activities.
  • Making participation easier: Online spaces have provided an option for people to join activities from home, as most public and large-scale online actions do not require additional permissions or complicated logistics.
  • Transcending boundaries and localities: Digital participation has enabled the transcending of locality, allowing people to establish connections with voices and networks outside of their own cities or countries.
  • Giving a voice to individuals with fewer opportunities: Online platforms have provided the space and platform for groups that would have lower participation rates in the event of traditional forms of participation, such as disadvantaged young people, people from isolated and remote areas, and people with disabilities (although this will be discussed further in the following parts, the exclusion of certain groups and digital inequalities is an important challenge).

Due to these benefits, some of the most important social movements of the late 20th and early 21st century emerged in which social media or the use of new information technologies played an important role, such as Occupy movements, the Arab Spring, the MeToo movement, and Fridays for Future.

Challenges and risks

Whilst digitalization offers important opportunities and is therefore used actively by social movements and individuals seeking social change, there are also some important challenges and risks of digital participation. Charles Tilly, a pioneering figure of social movements theory, argued when entering the 21st century new information technologies would play a vital role for the social movements of this new century. However, he also warned about technological determinism, observing that technology alone should not be seen as the sole driving force that dictates the course of our lives .

It is possible to summarize these risks and challenges in four main areas (for a more detailed discussion of these risks and challenges, see Şerban & Lüküslü, 2024):

  • Inequalities and exclusion: First of all, it is important to underline the existence of inequalities in relation to digitalisation and access to technology, demonstrating the problem of inclusion in digital participation. The COVID-19 pandemic also revealed how digitalisation on its own cannot erase existing inequalities; it may even serve to distance them further; ( Recent research argued that offline inequalities and/or privileges are reproduced or even amplified online. Taking for instance the issue of gender inequality, UN Women and the United Nations celebrated International Women’s Day on 8 March 2023 under the theme of “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality ” underlining the fact that while “digital technology is opening new doors for the global empowerment of women, girls and other marginalized groups,” there is still a persistent gender digital divide. It should also be noted that older generations of women are more disadvantaged than the younger ones. That is why gender and generation should also be taken into consideration. There is also a significant difference between urban and rural settings and that rural areas are more disadvantaged.
  • Limited digital competencies: Another crucial issue relates to the limited digital competences of many individuals. It is important to ensure that individuals, alongside policymakers and administrators, civil society professionals, and others in formal roles, are fully equipped to be users and content creators rather than merely consumers of mass media and advanced technologies. As underlined by the European Commission, “Being digitally competent is more than being able to use the latest smartphone or computer software – it is about being able to use such digital technologies in a critical, collaborative and creative way” (European Commission, 2017, as cited in Şerban et al., 2020 ). For this, the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027)  was adopted on 30 September 2020. This European Union (EU) policy initiative argued for a common vision of high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education in Europe, and aimed to support the adaptation of the education and training systems of Member States to the digital age. The Action Plan presented opportunities for the education and training community (teachers, students), policy makers, academia and researchers on national, EU and international level.
  • Threat of online harmful content: One of the serious challenges of digitalisation is related to the safety of online spaces and the threat of harmful content and online harassment and violence, which can spread rapidly through new technologies. Hate speech and radical ideas promoting violence can be easily circulated via social media, posing a threat to democracy and human rights . On 6 February 2018, the EU launched a range of new initiatives under the heading of Safer Internet Day. They were designed to ensure that children, young people, parents, teachers and other EU citizens become empowered and responsible digital users. The web portal for this initiative provides access to a wealth of information including an online course on child safety with teaching resources for topics such as fake news, cyberbullying and radicalisation.
  • Echo chambers and polarization trap: Finally, digitalisation can trap individuals in echo chambers or in other words, in environments in which the individuals encounter information and/or opinions that reflect and reinforce one’s own ideas and beliefs (Cinelli et al., 2021) and this has the risk of contributing to the political polarization (divisions) of societies (Barberà, 2020).

Struggling for change in high-speed societies

In this paper I aim to stress that an important additional challenge concerns digital technologies creating a climate of speed, and in our high-speed societies it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain long-term commitments and pursue long-term ambitions for change in our society. For this reason, while digital participation opens doors for hope, it also presents opportunities for disappointment and even despair to enter through those same doors.

The history of social movements demonstrates that social change – if ever at all possible – is the product of long-term struggles. In other words, it takes time and considerable effort alongside the existence of preconditions that produce change. A disadvantage of living in digital societies in which instant messages and constant communication bring high speed to our interpersonal exchanges and everyday lives is that individuals can easily feel disappointed when their actions do not engender immediate social change whereas they are used to getting reactions and results instantaneously. That is why optimism for change and pessimism about the (im)possibility of change seem to occur almost simultaneously. Utopian thinking and imagining alternatives are vital for solving the important problems of our societies as they pass through multiple crises, but on the other hand, patience and consistent efforts for initiating those alternatives and cultivating hope also become increasingly essential.

Cultivating hope, or hope as a verb

Using the word “hope” in reference to the magnum opus of philosopher Ernst Bloch (1986 [1959]), The Principle of Hope can be useful for avoiding falling into the trap of having lofty ambitions and then deep disappointments about the possibility of change. In our society, there is cause for individuals to declare little to no hope for the future, or express high hopes which very soon turn into disappointment. That is why it is crucial to ponder what hope means (especially in our speed driven societies). Based on the observations, for the Erasmus+ project PARTIBRIDGES , an online training module discussing hope based on Ernst Bloch’s conceptualisation was created which discussed hope based on the conceptualization of the philosopher. Hope, according to Bloch, rejects banal optimism and encourages participation and the exploration of the potentialities of individual and collective life. Hope in that sense has an active character and “requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong” (p. 3). In that sense, hope is a view of the world as well as an engagement and involvement therewith (Bloch, 1986, I, p. 12). In a book edited with colleagues (Batsleer, Rowley, & Lüküslü, 2023), we made reference to Bloch’s concept of hope and underlined its importance in community development and social work, proposing the usage of “hope as a verb,” which involves active participation and a consideration that it is a process that requires long-term effort, despite its seeming incongruity with our current high-speed society

The role of the EU

Digitalization had already been a top priority for European nation-states and the European Union has been working on the topic to strengthen existing opportunities and to combat the risks. The Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), a policy initiative aiming to support the adaptation of the education and training systems of Member States to the digital age, is an important initiative and we also see that the European Commission is active in funding programs such as the Digital Europe Programme (DIGITAL). Programmes like Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps are also active in developing projects for developing digital skills and competencies. Nevertheless, it is important to also include critical thinking and human aspects (including emotions such as hope and despair) in these projects. It is also essential to think critically and make reference to philosophy and utopian thinking for contemplating the experience of living in speed driven digital societies which will enable us to cultivate hope for the future and build resilient societies.


Digitalization is offering important opportunities for the future of participation. Most importantly, digital participation offers hope for societal change in our societies since digital participation offers the opportunity of transcending boundaries and making participation easier, cheaper and more accessible for individuals (including individuals with fewer opportunities). However, there are also important challenges regarding digital participation since issues of inequalities and exclusion persists; there is also the problem of limited digital competencies of individuals for being the creators of digital content rather than mere users; harmful content circulates easily in the online world and there is also the danger of being trapped in the echo chambers in the digital world and adding to the existent polarization in our societies. In addition to these challenges, individuals are accustomed to living in speed driven societies as our digital societies are societies in which communication and interaction happens instantaneously whereas social change takes lots of effort and time, and it is difficult therefore to not fall into disappointment and despair. That is why it becomes indispensable to distinguish between optimism and hope as we argued in this paper in reference to Ernst Bloch underlining that it requires a long-term struggle which seems indispensable for our high-speed societies.


Demet Lüküslü
Demet Lüküslü

Demet is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Yeditepe University, and 2023/2024 Mercator Istanbul Policy Center Fellow. She recently worked on the book project (with Janet Batsleer and Harriet Rowley) Young People, Radical Democracy and Community Development (Policy Press, 2022). She has published various book chapters and journal articles in both English and Turkish.