12:17, September 04 222 0 theguardian.com

2019-09-04 12:17:05
Shortcuts  Sign of the times: how the signature became a meaningless scrawl

The death of the signature has been predicted for many years, but another knell has just been sounded: after a 20-month investigation, the Law Commission has ruled that electronic signatures are, in most cases, a “viable alternative to handwritten ones”.

Electronic signatures have been around in one form or another for a while – they include clicking on “I accept” buttons, as well as apps that allow you to upload a signature for PDF contracts. But the handwritten signature had a relatively short life as a legally binding flourish: before most people could write, the point of signing a document was that you performed the act in front of a witness. That’s why, legally, an X would always suffice.

Back when they mattered, most of us spent almost as much time practising our signatures as we did learning to forge our mother’s. There was a time when a signed note from a parent – authentic or otherwise – could persuade a shopkeeper to sell fags to an eight year old. Looking back, it seems remarkable that a mere signature could ever be taken seriously as identification, that with a few slapdash pen strokes you could turn a cheque into money.

The decline of the importance of the signature has been accelerating lately, as new forms of payment and identification take over. Nobody looks at the name scrawled on the back of your credit card any more. The mark you make with your fingernail on the iPad of a van driver in acknowledgement of a delivery bears no resemblance to your name, or even to writing – you’d struggle to produce a legible X. No one cares.

Celebrities used to have to sign a lot of autographs, but the selfie is now the preferred form of keepsake, and typically more valuable.

For the moment, authors still need to sign books, and Wimbledon players still put their mark on oversized tennis balls, but the increasing invalidity of the signature has made even these gestures seem suspect. How do I know that’s your actual signature when the meaningless squiggle never even looks the same twice?