How We Moved From Handwritten Signatures To Electronic Signatures. And Why It’s More Important Than Ever.
Guest post by Ch Daniel
Signatures are a funny thing.
I’ll start by telling the story of signatures (from early times to today) and then why they’re more important than ever.
One waves their wrist in a certain pattern, holding a pen and the result is something that’s unique to them. We find it easy and trivial nowadays, but 1000 years ago when the first known signature was inscribed it looked like… no one knew what to make out of it.
“Signature” is also an umbrella word. I would say it’s the first representation, ever, of a personal brand. No one can point exactly when we became conscious as human beings but if we are to take a step back and think about consciousness, I feel a strong correlation between that and a signature.
1. the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings.
2. a person’s awareness or perception of something.
In simple terms and without reading the dictionary definition, I’d have said it means “a being’s capacity of awareness of itself” — combining number 1 and 2 above. How can we ever be able to know when people became aware of themselves?
We can’t, specifically. It’s a fuzzy line. Philosophers and scientists are wrestling with the question. But we can know exactly when people wanted to make others aware of themselves — they did that through a signature. History says it’s been 1069, a Castilian nobleman and military commander called El Cid.
What came up next?
Between that moment and the present moment, signatures were mainly used by noblemen. It meant their word. That’s, once again, making others aware of their persona. It was their way of signaling their personal brand. And it wasn’t just noble people who had a signature. A house/dynasty/family had their trademark as well — a wax signature sealing a letter.That meant privacy (the letter is unopened as long as the seal is untampered), honour and a promise of authenticity — you can trust that the message was sent by a certain group of people because only they would be in possession of the signet ring or the seal stick.
In today’s world
Upon a physical analysis, a signet ring is a combination of material that has got engraved something you, I or other people can recognise as an image. Nowadays we would call that a logo.
Let’s fast forward to today. Given that logos are everywhere, sometimes you happen to see cases in which the meaning of logos from different companies overlaps. There are court cases over infringement of intellectual property and numerous other ways to dispute the ownership of the meaning of a picture.
Where is that leading us, as a society? It doesn’t take us long to imagine a world where more companies with more logos push us into endless fights over the meaning of symbols. And hey, there are over 7 billion of us on this planet.
It’s not going uphill it seems. Unless…
There is a way, through the digital, to have endless signatures
A smarter way.
We’ve raised machines to do complex calculations for us. Not just 2 + 2 equals 4, but more than that. We’ve raised them to display combinations of pixels and represent images you and I commonly describe as different things: a lion, a wolf, a bird or a tree. Without any coincidence, these are exactly symbols that we used to represent houses/dynasties.
We’ve raised machines to do so many things for us, like order food/groceries while we’re not at home and set the temperature of the house 2 hours before our arrival — yet we’re going into the direction of saturating the options of emblems and wrist movements that turn into our identities?
Turns out, not really.
We found out we can mix and match the visual layer of a signature, because much like we’ve trained the machines to do so many things, we can train them to attach an underlying layer of uniqueness along with the visual.
You and I can have the same signature — unlikely, but possible — and yet we can still distinguish them. Even better, you and I are able to change our signatures whenever we want and we’d be able to tell who’s who. An accompanying combination of code, which we honorifically named esignature, gives us the possibility to live a story that’s as old as humanity: the concept of shapeshifting. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare an animal taking another form while being the same on the inside to a signature taking another form — but the essence of the two concepts is the same.
Why did all these happen?
Is it really not a coincidence that we called it “signature”, even though it’s electronic? I’d say so. We, as humans, always liked stories, especially if they’re reiterated with a slight change. Too little change to a story and it’s a copy. Too much change and it might be too foreign. We were locked into the first option before, with handwritten signatures. Change a signature slightly and it’s not you anymore.
Now, with electronic signatures, we can do our reiteration of a story of ourselves without going too far into the foreign. The cryptographic layer is there to confirm that, indeed, it is us.
Now, you might say to yourself “that’s a cool story, what am I supposed to do with this kind of information?” My feeling is that it’s something uplifting.
Your signature is your word. Much like the king’s emblem on a sigil, it weighs depending on how serious you treat it.
And what you’re reading now might not be for you today — you might think electronic signatures are not for you. But as time goes on, they will become more and more relevant. There is no doubt about paper documents and their compatibility in a world where we’re looking forward to having not only our software in the cloud but maybe also our computers.
Sure, handwritten signatures still work. But as we adapt and step closer and closer towards the full-cloud world, we’ll leave paper signatures behind — or maybe just like horses and cars, we’ll simply entertain them whenever we want to evoke nostalgia.
Much like some few people ran away from novel concepts like the Internet and then changed their mind, the same story will apply to the electronic signature. You can replace “internet” with any kind of newer disruptive technology like a car, the TV or the iPod — and the same can be said about your digital signature.
Your word weighs. Your thoughts do as well. But your signature weighs even more — it’s the representative of your persona.
It’s already started:
Ch Daniel runs an experiences design agency, Ch Agency, that helps SaaS CEOs reduce user churn. He’s also founded an app that went from 0 to 200K users in its first year, writes daily and hosts The Attention Podcast.