Joining the dots
I have a book which I am told is a signed copy. The frontpiece is adorned with a blue horizontal squiggle vaguely resembling a flat-chested camel. I suppose it might be a signature, but I'm not sure it is the author's.
How long is it since you picked up a pen, and did you use it for joined up writing, (or cursive script, to give it its proper name), or were you using block lettering to fill in a form, a crossword, an address on an envelope, or perhaps a shopping list. We use cursive less and less. Even back in 2012, a survey of 2,000 adults in the UK found that, on average, it was 41 days since the respondents had written anything at all.
So is it time, as some have suggested recently, for the UK to end the teaching of joined-up writing and instead focus on keyboard usage, as Finland has done, and as some of the USA states have done? It is tempting to think it will save hours of classroom time which can be better spent teaching the next generation of tax-payers skills which are applicable to the workplace, but some educationalists and psychologists claim that learning cursive script leads to improved reading and spelling, and warn that if handwriting is dropped from the curriculum, it needs to be replaced with arts and craft types of activities which improve motor skills, not keyboarding. The British Dyslexia Association points out that whilst typing can greatly improve exam grades of dyslexic students, learning cursive helps address dyslexia because of the focus on a natural flow of letters rather than addressing one letter at a time.
Handwriting in general may have educational benefits. A controlled study in 2014 of older students taking notes during a lecture found the ones taking the slower handwritten notes tended to understand the material better, probably because they had to mentally process and paraphrase the information, whilst the students using laptops tended instead to make more verbatim transcripts and focused less on the meaning.
An interesting question is that if children no longer learn to write in anything except block lettering, how will they develop their own signature? We are asked to sign application forms and contracts, sign statements and accounts, sign for receipts of parcels, and in many cases, it is ceremonial, indicating a willingness to create a binding obligation. With the demise of cheques, it is rarely treated as "proof" of our own identity, no matter what squiggle or mark we put on the paper. I once injured my hand and went to the pharmacy with my prescription for industrial strength pain-killers and was asked to sign for them. Upon pointing out that the hand in plaster was the one I use for writing, I was told "just use your other hand, it doesn't matter".
Increasingly, parcel deliveries ask for a signature using a stylus on a screen, an act which is so alien to us that I marvel at the random shapes that appear when I try to sign my name, and doubt that I could recognise it as my signature if presented with it at a later date. There is also a trust issue with this form of signature collection. Having once captured my signature in electronic format, what is to stop a rogue operator from copying it onto a different document to mask the loss or theft of a different delivery? Trying to do that with an old-school signature in ink on paper would not survive forensic examination.
Do we even need traditional signatures in this digital age? Are we trying to automate things which are redundant. So often, paperwork requires signatures for no reason other than officiousness. If you fill in your tax return on paper, you have to sign and date it. Submit the same information online, and the most you can do is tick a box to indicate your assertion that you have been honest. The server processing your submission knows your IP number and the timestamp of your transaction, which identifies you better than any signature ever could, and may well be harder to forge than a signature.
The next time you find yourself designing a form and putting a space on it for the person to sign, ask yourself if you really need a signature, and if so, how will it work when you inevitably ask your web manager to add it to the company website?
28th November 2017
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.