John's World: Squiggle on the Dotted Line

October 1, 2012 07:26 AM

As a card-carrying member of the Senior Citizen Brigade, it is my obligation to point out loudly and repeatedly where civilization has gone wrong. While this is more effective if others are listening, an audience is not mandatory, and I happily spend time grousing to pets, inanimate objects or images on TV.

Today my topic is the Decline and Fall of Signatures. It will likely be the topic tomorrow as well, given my memory, but that’s a whole ’nother rant.

I offer as Exhibit A our most cherished—and largely unread—national document, the Declaration of Independence. Of that longish, beautifully handwritten letter of complaint, we can rarely recall more than two parts: the opening sentence, where we pronounce every "s" like an "f," which never seems to lose its hilarity, and John Hancock’s signature.

His bold autograph, as every school-child should know, was made large enough so "the king could read it without his spectacles." This charming but dubious legend (it surfaced years after the signing) is matched by a plethora of John Hancock one-liners concerning contracts and insurance forms.

But I digress. The important lesson is that you can read Hancock’s name. What a stunningly old-fashioned concept! As a result, this suspected smuggler became the poster boy for a trusted commercial institution and namesake of a really tall building. Clearly, good things happen to disciples of legibility.

Or at least they used to. This affordable ticket to respectability might be rising in value even as it diminishes in supply. As we sprint toward a day when we’ll affix personal bar codes to the bottom of marriage licenses, the sheer novelty of putting your name on paper and having it interpreted correctly could evolve into a powerful social advantage, or at least an amusing barroom trick.

Such an impoverished future was not foreseen back when the world was new. How many happy hours did I spend in penmanship class working on the manly signature that announces my name, even my lineage?

Unlike the girls, I did not have to experiment with possible new surnames to see if they fit.
This exercise is not to be confused with the carving of initials into public wooden surfaces or mastering the bathroom stall limerick. It was the gestation of a personal trademark that would inspire admiration in people who did not know me. As for those who did, of course, there wasn’t enough ink or art to overcome firsthand data.

Little did I know that technology was about to despoil this valiant effort. First, by creating cheap ball-point pens that virtually ensured no signature would emerge smoothly and blob-free. (Consider all of the important documents in your life that have vicious little circles engraved on the bottom of the page to get the ink going.)

Next was the end of cursive handwriting. If we’re all just going to print and not worry about raising the pen, they should have given us more recess time in grade school. Apparently, when all you have are keyboards to inscribe your thoughts, any unique flair accompanying your writing style is purposeless.

The latest and perhaps fatal blow to graphology could be the credit card signing devices at virtually all cashier stations. Even the best efforts of motivated signature enthusiasts are uphill when the wrist is cocked at an implausible angle and the dotted line buried inside a barricaded tunnel.

More important to the signature culture, who will need handwriting experts to testify at embezzlement trials and Senate confirmation hearings? Will biographers deconstruct old ATM slips and obsolete #hashtags to psychoanalyze dead Presidents?

Go with the flow. Just as Japanese calligraphy, which takes an hour to produce just one knock-knock joke, is struggling to survive in a world of 140-character tweets, our need for
instantaneous communication spells doom for the lovingly crafted signature. John H. will be up the creek without a quill, so to speak.

Not to worry. With ubiquitous touch screens as our preferred mode of communication, all we have to do is perfect a flamboyant PIN number flourish, similar to the snappy touch-tone sequence we could pound out to call a friend, back when phone numbers mattered.

Which just goes to prove that the keypad is now mightier than both pen and sword. Goodbye, John Hancock. Hello, No. 4879.

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