Technology changes us as much as we change technology. It trains us to behave in certain ways, to modify how we speak or move to better accommodate its utility. In some cases, technology can transform the very things that define us. Perhaps the most literal example is our handwritten signature, a core talisman of identity. Developed in response to the ancient technology of paper and ink, it’s lately been confronted with the primacy of keyboards and screens.
Think about how you most often sign your name, if you do at all: It’s not with a pen. Over the past decade, businesses have updated their points of sale with touch pads and styluses. Signing contracts increasingly happens electronically, where you either “draw” your signature with a mouse or just type in your name. More recently, mice and styluses have disappeared in favor of fingers. Touchscreen computers and Square machines have turned signatures into a thing you must jab and press into existence—a thing that never looks quite right.
Twitter is full of people crowing that their digital signatures look wrong. Some embrace the anarchy of it, approaching the Square payment screen like a blank canvas to create modern art. Others just dash off a squiggle. For a long time I took a purist’s approach, trying my best to stay true to my real signature, deleting and trying again when it came out weird, apologizing to people in line behind me. All of the people I’ve talked to about this, from friends to cashiers to fellow shoppers, say their on-screen signature bears little resemblance to their “real one” now. Some admit that the muscle memory to handwrite their names—that last vestige of cursive—is atrophying, leaving them with an inconsistent John Hancock. Always, a note of anxiety creeping in these confessions.
“Your signature is like a public image,” says Sheila Lowe, a writer and handwriting expert who works as a forensic document analyst for court cases. “A signature shows what the person wants the world to know about them.” Lowe is also president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, a group of graphologists who believe handwriting can reveal personality traits. Whether or not you believe in graphology, which has been called a pseudoscience, there’s no doubt signatures matter—legally, emotionally, even neurologically. Now people are wondering if it matters that their signatures are changing.
Last year, Lowe worked for Adobe at the company’s big conventions, luring people to the Adobe Sign software booths with a free handwriting analysis. “We were having people sign on the iPad and on paper. To a person, they’d complain about the way their handwriting looked on the iPad,” Lowe says. “Our on-screen signature just doesn’t represent us in the same way.”
The Origins of an Identity (Crisis)
Before I had a signature of my own, I had my dad’s. He’s a well-known actor, and when I was a little kid in the ’80s people mailed photos of him to our house hoping he’d sign them and send them back. He always did, but there were so many that, well, other people helped out. My mom knew how to do his signature exactly. So did his assistant, and starting around 7 years old, so did I. As my brothers got older, they did some too. We’d all sit around the kitchen table together with stacks of headshots and sign Dad’s name with sharpies. (I’m sorry if you received a forgery. For what it’s worth, we put a lot of love into it and none of us can tell the difference.)
So when I was 8 years old and beginning to dream of what I wanted to be when I grew up—a writer, movie star, and also a news broadcaster, and to drive a large red truck—I knew the first thing I needed was a signature of my own. I sat at the end of my bed with a notebook and pencil and modeled one based on Dad’s. The light out my window dimmed as I tried different iterations, eventually landing on something that felt like me: a big loopy E followed by large scribbles cascading into smaller scribbles, exploding into a D that sweeps around, hits the E, strikes through the center of itself to cross a previously planted F, and ends in a dashed line. I practiced and practiced until I had to turn on the light by the bed to practice more. As I wrote it, I imagined what it would feel like to be a success in my own right one day (teaching my own daughter how to copy it for my fans).
“George W. Bush’s signature is just like his father’s. It is that need to live up to that ideal,” she says, casually diagnosing one of the most fundamental aspects of my psyche.
I grew up, and for a quarter century the loops and lines of my signed name remained mostly fixed. Whether I was signing a love letter, a parking ticket, or the lease on my first apartment—fwiw, it was never an autograph—there was my crafted self, emblazoned on the dotted line.
Then the stylus forced a stutter. My chubby finger began to smudge the lines. Vainly (in both senses of the word) I tried to make it look right. This is my signature, I thought for years, and some newfangled technology is not going to change it! Then I gave up. I embraced a shorthand signature just for screens. It’s not a real signature. Just a big E and D.
When I tell Lowe how my signature has changed, she asks me how I developed it in the first place. I tell her it’s “inauthentic” because I based it on a parent’s. “Well, so that says that you identify strongly with that parent. Look at George W. Bush. He does that. His signature is just like his father’s. It is that need to live up to that ideal,” she says, casually diagnosing one of the most fundamental aspects of my psyche.
Now that Lowe and I are down this path, I ask what it says about me that I’ve allowed Square payment machines and DocuSign screens to change the way I represent myself in the world. “Whatever form your signature is going to take is going to reflect something about you,” she says. “You called the other signature inauthentic. So maybe this one is more authentically you.”
Mind-blown emoji. Maybe changing my signature now, when I have a career and family of my own, proves I’m finally stepping out of Dad’s shadow. Or maybe I’ve just grown lazy. Or less concerned with self-image. Or more nihilistic.
Legally and Practically, Too
Signatures carry more than just emotional freight. Their most important power, of course, is legal. They evolved so humans could bind themselves to agreements. Before the written signature, the Romans had signet rings to seal documents. The point of both is mostly the same: to execute some kind of contract.
An inconsistent signature can open the door for fraud, according to attorney Nicholas W. Schwandner, who has written about the significance of signatures and seals in contract law. He says it’s mostly you who would be asked to authenticate your own signature. Your bank may get in touch to ask if you actually purchased something, for instance. In that way, it doesn’t really matter if your signature is exactly the same every time; what matters is that you can recognize it as your own. But if signing on a screen—with a pen, with your finger, with a cursor—and on paper means you have vastly different signatures out there, it raises the possibility that you could take advantage of that and disavow a legitimate signature in an attempt to get out of making a payment. Or you could honestly not recognize a signature as your own. “If someone denies that that’s their actual signature, the way that it would be proven would generally be finding other documents that have signatures on it. If it looks entirely different, it could create a problem of proof,” Shwandner says.
When I recently had to sign a bunch of legal documents, the official accepting them warned me that I had to sign in the exact same way across the whole stack, lest the legality of the contract be called into question. That requirement differs across regions, Schwandner says, and can even vary according to the whims of individual county clerks.
As a forensic document examiner, Lowe is the person banks and courts hire when there’s some handwriting dispute, and she says the key thing to understand is that signatures always change. “What I do is ask for as many signatures that are known, and not disputed, around the time of the questioned signature. Looking at a signature from 20 years ago may not be helpful because handwriting does change,” she says. The screen problem complicates things because it introduces more inconsistency in the same time period than might otherwise be there.
Screens can do more than that—they can make signatures obsolete entirely. For one thing, new ways to authenticate your identity have popped up, from pin codes to fingerprints, the latter being theoretically more secure because it can’t be forged. Screens also shrivel the cultural knowledge necessary to make signatures work.
For years, handwriting education has been replaced in US schools with typing lessons. In 2009, when the Common Core Curriculum was first developed, cursive instruction was written out, notes Lowe. In some cases, kids don’t know how to sign their name at all. However, it’s more recently been making a comeback. There are now 18 states that mandate handwriting instruction during elementary school.
Lowe, for one, is glad. Handwriting is too useful to ignore. And, in her experience, too revealing. At the end of our conversation, she tells me a story. “Twenty years ago, my daughter was murdered by her boyfriend, who was a federal agent,” she says. “He killed himself too. When she first met him, she brought his handwriting for me to analyze, and we talked about it. There were some serious red flags for pathology in it that we discussed. So, you know, handwriting has played quite an important part in my life.”
For most of us, the stakes of any individual handwriting specimen will never be so high. But even if it’s just our way of saying “This is who I am,” the act of crafting our names matters. The next time I sign for a coffee, I think I’ll try harder to make my signature true—adding those squiggles back in, my dashes, because they’re mine.