LANGUAGE MAY 17, 2013
Handwritten signatures are toast. Kaput. The number of times most of us sign our names on a weekly basis now versus, say, twenty years ago has significantly decreased, and that trend is not going to reverse itself anytime soon. In another twenty years, maybe sooner, you won't be signing anything by hand, ever. And that’s not a bad thing, because the act of name signing has, in many ways, veered into the realm of absurdity and farce.
At the moment, nearly everything about the process of signing one's name appears to be in place to dissuade the signer from giving it an honest go: Signature pads at stores are terribly awkward, credit card receipt signature lines are often far too tiny, and the people accepting our signatures tend not to care about the appearance of what we scribble. Unsurprisingly, we've adjusted our behavior to fit the circumstances. We shorten pen strokes, take liberties, and, ultimately, show very little reverence for the act of signing our names. Chicken scratch predominates—and not even chicken scratch that vaguely resembles one’s name or is repeatable. For many, writing a signature has become an exercise in flick-of-the-wrist renderings that in no way relate to or reflect the letters that are grouped to form our names.
And we'll all be doing that soon enough, as more and more uses for handwritten signatures fade away due to modern replacements. But why wait passively for the inevitable? There has to be a better way forward, and the sooner we arrive at some solid, reliable, certain-to-be-taken-more-seriously signature replacements the better. This chicken-scratch stuff is for the birds.
Fortunately, it may be possible to accelerate the erasure of the handwritten signature from our lives and move along to whatever is going to come next. Together we can expose the uselessness of the modern signature in the vast majority of situations where we are required to sign something by hand, thus hastening the implementation and acceptance of new and better alternatives. But before drawing up battle plans, it makes sense to take a look at how we got to this point.
According to historian Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, the progression of how Americans have used and viewed signatures follows a fairly straightforward and easily traceable path. Prior to the late 18th century, the vast majority of people living in modern-day America could not write. Legal documents were often signed with an X while in the presence of a witness. For those who could write—mostly businessmen and the wealthy—signatures served the purpose of establishing identity, and little more. "There was no notion of [the signature as a form of] individuality at that time," Thornton says. "By the colonial period, some people began to realize that it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a distinctive signature, simply to protect against fraud. But 'distinctive' did not mean something that would reflect individuality. That’s not the way an 18th century person would've understood the signature at all."
The arrival of large-scale literacy in the 19th century revolutionized things. During that era, Thornton says, signatures began to show marks of individuality. More people started collecting autographs of the famous or especially accomplished, and the pseudoscience of handwriting analysis—or graphology—gained popularity. By the onset of the 20th century, people began to "work up" creative and unique signatures as a form of personal expression. At the time, handwriting classes were seen as an opportunity to instill lessons about following orders. As applied to signatures, those efforts partially backfired. "Penmanship exercises were done to a metronome and compared to drill training," notes Thornton. "So people started to rebel against that. All the conformist pressures at work in society resulted in people seeing their signatures as a way to rebel, and it becomes a trademark of your individuality."
But, Thornton says, as cursive began to lose ground to printed writing, and especially following the mass production of typewriters, handwriting—and thus signatures—became less of a focal point for the average person.
That evolution has been hastened by the advent of computers and advancing technology, foremost because newfangled techniques and gadgets make it so we need to sign our names less often than in the past. We pay bills online instead of mailing signed checks and swipe debit cards at the supermarket without lifting a pen. We use PayPal to compensate friends when we owe them money. Electronic PIN number-based options allow us to "sign" tax forms and other documents. Email and cell phones make it so we sign fewer handwritten letters. E-signature companies are popping up everywhere and, in many cases, thriving. Meanwhile, more and more business entities and professional trades are turning to electronically signed documents. In our nation's federal courts, for instance, many filings are considered "signed" when one's name is typed onto an electronic submission in a specified manner. It's still the case that we sign leases, and mortgages, and applications for certain things in pen, but for most of us, those scenarios don't come up all that often.
In addition to signing things less frequently, we're also signing in vastly different ways than before. Annoying and frustrating ways. We've all used those dreaded signature pads when paying for something in a shop with a credit card or accepting a FedEx delivery. Those things are infuriating, seemingly designed by the devil himself.
"There are several problems with these signature pads," says Alan Hedge, an ergonomics professor at Cornell University. "The stylus design tends to be heavier and bulkier than a regular pen, so it feels less familiar, and it tends to be tethered with cord that’s often not very flexible. Also, the stylus tip tends to be larger than a pen/pencil tip and typically doesn’t move smoothly over surface, which is crucial for smooth writing."
When using a credit card to pay for dinner or a taxi ride, crafting a solid signature can be similarly challenging. Signature lines are often far too small, and in many instances we don’t have access to a flat surface upon which to write.
Largely due to these combined frustrations, it just doesn't seem worth it to care all that much about what our signatures look like anymore. So we scribble and move on. And we've arrived at a moment in history when, unless you're someone like Jack Lew or Queen Elizabeth II or Thomas Pynchon, no one really cares about your signature or what it looks like. So if you’re trying to do some cute thing with especially loopy Ls or fancy hearts, your efforts are going to waste. Signatures, simply put, just aren't what they used to be. "We still try to express our individuality, of course," notes Thornton, "but just not with signatures as the medium. The way to rebel now is not through handwriting and signatures."
While that's true generally, in another sense, this could be the exact right moment for using our signatures to fight the power. If UPS and Uniqlo are going to force us to interact with these horrendous signature pads, and we are resorting to chicken scratch in most cases anyway, why continue to scribble without any purpose or intent?
In his book, Prank the Monkey, humorist John Hargrave recounts a wonderfully hilarious experiment he conducted that is, importantly, quite capable of being repeated on a massive scale. Hargrave set out to test a hypothesis that clerks accepting credit card signatures almost never pay attention to the receipts we sign. First he adorned his name with rainbows and peace signs on a receipt. Another time, he scribbled a dark black mess that appeared as though he was trying to cover up a signature so that people wouldn’t be able to tell who signed. Both made the cut, no questions asked. He did a grid of 28 rectangles on the signature line one time. No problem. Same goes for the instance when he signed his name as a stick figure accompanied by some grass and a flower. Hargrave signed receipts in hieroglyphics, wrote "Mariah Carey," and signed in all caps as "BEETHOVEN." Even when he wrote, "I stole this card" on a signature line, no one called him on it, and the transaction went through.
Hargrave's DIY study proved what we all by now know: In most cases, no one is paying attention to our signatures, and the act of signing our names to authorize transactions has become a joke. At the same time, most of us are showing, via scribbles, that we no longer have much concern for the legibility of our signatures. So this would appear to be an ideal time to implement Hargrave's hijinks more broadly.
Next time you buy something at H&M, sign as "Prince Harry" or, better yet, the Prince symbol. When the check comes for lunch, try out a signature composed of Pac-Man being chased by some ghosts. Use the signature line to tell your cabbie, "You Have Pretty Eyes." Be creative, and super ridiculous.
If enough of us go this route, it's very possible that some company or individual will be persuaded to find a better way forward when it comes to verifying consumer transactions. At the very least, it might mean that clerks and tellers and waiters are instructed to pay more attention in the future, which will help curb fraud. But maybe it leads to something even better: an overhaul of the practice of signing our names in favor of something more secure and less prone to pranksterism.
"We may go back to the old regime, where the entire point of signatures is only to establish legal identity, and signatures have nothing to do with individuality," Thornton says, when asked whether she could envision a time in the near future when signatures are phased out completely. "And if we're going to do that, we may as well replace the signature and go with a DNA sample on the mortgage."
Perhaps that's a bit extreme as far as signature replacements go. But don't laugh too hard, and get ready to think these issues through more thoroughly in the coming years, because Thornton's half-joking suggestion is a sign of things to come. We all know that scribbled, illegible signatures aren't ideal, and because we also know changes are long overdue, you'll be hearing plenty more about new and innovative signature 2.0 options in the near future. Here's hoping we all pay more attention to the details and potential consequences of such ideas than the waitress at the Bonefish Grill in Yonkers did last weekend when I signed the dinner check with a single squiggly line extending from left to right and devoid of any recognizable letters.
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewjxmalady.