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What's in a name - or a signature?


The most unsettling thing about the fast pace of advancing technology for people of my generation may simply be the vertigo that comes from having the sand beneath your feet shifting so often.

Most people don’t like change. When they do, it’s because they have time to adjust to the new normal, or because it’s such an obvious improvement. I don’t remember anyone complaining about going to color TVs, or objecting to remote control. But that shows how old I am; I don’t know if they even make black and white TVs anymore, or TVs without a remote. It would be like making rotary-dial phones.

But technology moves so fast that by the time I get comfortable with something it’s already obsolete. I suppose there’s some advantage in avoiding fads by being totally unaware of them, but when it comes to technology it just means that you are two generations behind the latest trends, not one.

But I might be finally coming to an accommodation with all this.

I had something of an epiphany earlier this week in listening to an NPR story on how our signatures might become a relic of the past. My first reaction was, say what?! The signature is the basic ID of everything we do; you can’t get a credit card, a phone, a mortgage, an insurance policy or just about anything without a signature. It’s one of the unique things about each of us. Once you are familiar with someone’s handwriting, you can tell at a glance if he or she wrote something. How can they do away with it?

Oh, you say they aren’t even teaching cursive writing anymore? I suddenly felt a lot of sand shifting beneath me, and really fast.

But then I thought, well, in a hundred years, or 50, why would you need to use a signature? By then won’t they be using retina scans, DNA analysis, brainwave patterns, voice recognition … all things that can’t be forged by someone clever .

And once I realized that, in fact, a signature is itself simply a reflection of old technology, what’s the problem?  Slide rules were a great invention, but when you have a calculator or computer, who needs them?

It’s liberating to be able to cut ties with things when their functionality is primarily of the “we have always done it that way” model. Signatures have been a, well, signature mode of identification for a long time. But as I said, it is itself a form of technology; the development of writing and of tools like paper, pencils and pens made it ubiquitous.  It even translated into the electronic world, with screens we can write on.

But I have a signature function on my computer that doesn’t replicate my actual signature, which by the way is almost unreadable, as more and more signatures are these days.  And many credit card transactions no longer require signatures. New credit cards will call for PIN numbers, a numerical signature.

So it seems clear that the signature isn’t necessarily the best match for where technology is going. Or, perhaps, that we need to expand our idea of what a signature is. Maybe my retina was always a better signature of who I am.

Oh, one hint: if you get one of those new PIN credit cards, don’t use your address for your PIN signature. Forgers already know that trick.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.