I’ve been commenting on some blog posts recently about the importance of being able to be sure that your preservation actions don’t change the content/message(s) of a digital object and today I thought of a scenario that seems both very plausible and hopefully effective at illustrating the issue.
In 2009 a mother wrote her last will and testament using Microsoft Word 2003, she never printed it and saved it in the default Word 2003 format. In her will she split her assets evenly between her two sons, sons A and B. In 2010 she had a falling out with son A and updated the document to reflect that by removing her son from receiving a large portion of the inheritance that he otherwise would have received She died 15 years later without ever updating her will. It survived on the home server backups her sons had made for her over the years.
Come 2025 the two sons both retrieved the will and prepared to use it to argue their case for their portion of her assets. Son A presents the will in court as rendered using LibreOffice 2023, the only contemporary software that will open it. When opening the file LibreOffice misinterprets the changes that had been saved using the track changes feature of Word 2003 and presents a slightly mangled version that includes portions of the 2009 version in which Son A gets half his mother’s assets.
When presented with this, Son B knows something is not right. His mother (who he looked after as her Alzheimers set it) often and repeatedly told him that she had disowned Son A and that “he’s not getting anything!”.
However when the object was presented in the court Son B was surprisingly calm. Son B had come prepared! He had also tried accessing the object by rendering the file in LibreOffice 2023, however when he saw the result he immediately set about looking for someone who could help him access the “real” object.
After allowing his thoughts about searching to interface with the BrainCloud* he had quickly found a company specializing in old digital objects and digital access. Within seconds his problem had been analysed by them and, after he had provided his authorization thought pattern, the file was opened using a remotely hosted emulated environment that included Office 2003 running on Windows Vista (his mother had bought her laptop and just the wrong time and refused to upgrade it as she “liked the colour” of wndows vista).
Back in the court brother B presented his version of the object. The version that used Word 2003 running on Vista as the Interaction environment, with the change tracking presentation layer turned on, clearly showed what he was entitled to and, coupled with other evidence of his late mother’s change in relationship to son A, was the deciding factor that won him his full inheritance.