All the Boats Must Rise

In 20+ years of helping all sorts of organizations and people understand and participate in Open Source, the most difficult concept for learners is what I call the “All Boats Must Rise” concept. Maybe it’s human nature, but learners often express a desire to create exclusive goodness only for themselves and their allies. “Open Source sounds like a great thing, but how can I keep my bad neighbor next door (or my competitor nation) from reaping the same advantages as my own citizens” is how the problem is generally expressed. To me, this mainly indicates that they’ve not yet understood.

picture of boats high and dry on strand

Open Source is about all the boats rising.

As a waxing tide tends to lift all boats equally, Open Source should create a benefit for all, even those who don’t contribute. Even those who are using the software in unintended ways. Even your competitors, even your enemies. Sticking with the boat metaphor, not every boat in the harbor will take advantage of the benefit. Some will rest at anchor. Others won’t be fit to sail. These are not your concerns.

What is your concern is making sure your actual constituents realize and take full advantage of the opportunities opened through involvement in Open Source. Also your concern is growing and strengthening the active part of your community by fostering nurturing culture, acknowledging healthy enlightened self-interest, and delineating intrinsic rewards that are gained by participation and contribution.

Sovereignty is incompatible with Open Source

And sadly still, some companies, some governments, and many activists continue to try to construe Open Source as a fungible concept that can be modified to create strategic exclusion. Sovereignty is defined as “supreme power or authority”. The idea of “Digital Sovereignty” as in creating an island of benefit for a select group (be they citizens, team members, or any identified group) is fundamentally antithetical to Open Source, since a true Open Source project is by design not an exclusion engine.

picture of fish being released

Create more value than you monetize

Tim O’Reilly, whose writings and conferences arguably popularized the Open Source movement, tells us that “the secret to happiness is to create more value than you capture”, and thus intrinsic generosity is also part of the “All Boats Must Rise” philosophy. Supporting the community means leaving opportunities of benefit (and influence) open, and continually giving back commensurate with the value you’ve derived.

Open Source was founded on enlightened self interest, enthusiasm, and collective participation, and I have witnessed that it can create global change, and may be the best chance we have to combat the current global trend towards exclusion and self-protection (which lead quite directly to polarization and excessive nationalism), but only if we lead with the “All Boats Must Rise” nature of this movement.