Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Right Signature, Wrong Message

I think we have all had to experience this rather dubious form of signatorial acknowledgement at one time or another - the delivery of a package, or registered post, etc.  I dislike the concept because it's impossible to sign a tiny electronic device with a plastic lolly stick masquerading as a pencil - and still produce a signature that looks genuine.  If it looks like you gave the pencil to a chimp, why bother at all?

A couple of days ago I had some broadband cable work done and as the guy was heading for the door to leave, I asked if I had to sign for the work.  He'd forgotten but quickly produced a mobile and brought up the contract page (I assumed that was what it was - I didn't have time to read it).  Problem was he couldn't find a stylus for the signature.  Instead he picked up a 7-inch screwdriver I'd left on the hall chest and said that would do. 

I can still hear the scrape as its hardened steel tip etched an illegible electronic scrawl into the signer's box.  The noise wasn't quite as bad as fingernails down a blackboard, but it was close.  The phone screen was never going to look the same again.

Before Christmas I had occasion to sign my casual employment contract.  This was something that previously had been done by hand using pen and paper - but was now all digital using a product called Right Signature.  You receive a PDF document and scroll to the point where a signature is required.  A box then magically appears into which, according to the instructions, you 'write' your signature.  I was at a loss because, though a pen/stylus might work on an iPad, it wasn't going to work on my 24-inch Eizo monitor.  I checked the company website for help.  Its told me all that was required was an "effortless signature" using a mouse.  Has anyone ever been able to produce an accurate or legible signature with a mouse?  I doubt it.  It's like drawing with a house brick. The two processes, handwriting and computer screen, just don't go together.  I practiced for 40 mins, eventually producing a signature that sort of looked about 50% like my regular one - it wasn't very authentic.  I wondered about the legal veracity of this kind of contract.  According to its online information, Right Signature is a perfectly legal way to gather signatures from employees in situations such as this - thus speeding up processing in companies that need large numbers of signed confirmations in a hurry.  OK for the finance department perhaps but, after I'd finished checking it online, I practiced with a mouse and eventually on an iPad (which was even harder than a mouse) I'd lost two hours of my day - and collected a few more grey hairs.  I checked Right Signature again to see if this was legal for all 'legal' documents - and it's not. For anything that really matters, births, deaths, marriages, divorces and a whole heap of other situations, it definitely is NOT legal.  Interesting.

I write this partly because my signature is very hard to recreate with a mouse or even one finger (as was suggested in the online tutorial) and that's the point of a signature.  It's not supposed to be easily re-created using non-standard devices.  Being able to flawlessly forge signatures by hand was a skill that saved many from certain death in WWII.  You can imagine a different outcome if all they had in those times was an electronic finger painting pad on which make a forgery.

My father was a solicitor and spent his entire working life based around the authenticity of the signed document.  Fortunes, houses, inheritances and more all relied on the authenticity of hand written signatures.

Now all that's needed is a scrawl in an electronic window that bears little resemblance to a real, hand written signature, but which is now sufficient proof to be employed.

While on signatures, I have to confess.  Many years ago I worked for an audio visual company that ordered a lot of film processing.  In those days anyone taking film to the lab had to have a purchase order with a sales tax exemption clause signed by the 'authorised company' signatory.  Essentially anyone taking film to the lab scribbled on it - no one took a blind bit of notice whose signature it was, or whether it was legible.  I thought this was a stupid bit of bureaucracy so tried an experiment.  Every time I went to the lab, I signed with someone else's name - just to see how effective this safeguard was. 

I started with the names of various global despots such as Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Jo Stalin, to name a few.  No one remarked on the oddly-named people authorising the sales tax exemption for weeks so I stirred the pot a bit more, using the names of high ranking Nazis: Bormann, Eichmann, Hess, Himmler, Heydrich, etc.  Still no reaction.  I think my somewhat sad little scheme continued for more than a year before another employee noticed one of my sales dockets, signed by Adolf Hitler - then the alarm bells rang.  I didn't lose my job (probably  should have) but it sort of highlighted the uselessness of having to blindly sign a document in this way.

I could go on.  Remember when the government knee jerked over terrorist threats in Australia?  Suddenly you could no longer send a parcel interstate unless you signed a docket on the outside to the effect that it contained no "dangerous goods".  No one ever seriously checked this signature with photo ID which kind of made that declaration rather superfluous....

All of this essentially spells out the demise of the written word. Electronic devices diminish the beauty of the hand-crafted signature.  We increasingly rely on electronic devices to provide reading material and the feel of paper between your fingers as you flick the pages is soon to be a distant memory.  

But then, if I hadn't used a computer to write this, and accessed the Internet to post it online, no one would be any the wiser...

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