Visa recently joined the other major credit card companies, MasterCard, Discover and American Express, in no longer requiring customer signatures at point of sale in retail stores. The company’s executives decided that due to the rise of online shopping and the new EMV security chips embedded in their credit cards, collecting a signature was no longer a “necessary safety measure.” Although retail stores still retain the option to collect shopper signatures, they are no longer required. Many retailers, including Walmart and Target, have announced that they would discontinue the practice altogether.
Just like that, the single most distinctive identifier of humans, their signature, is now on the endangered species list. It’s one of the few things (besides opposable thumbs) that separates us from the Animal Kingdom. Unless you are a professional athlete, you are probably not going to be using your signature too often. Even signing checks (as well as checks themselves) has become almost obsolete due to online banking and PayPal.
Human society has been requiring some sort of identifier since the Stone Age. We learned from The Flintstones that cavemen certified who they were by marking legal documents with a giant “X.” I assume everyone’s “X” was slightly unique so people could be differentiated, but “X” has always marked the spot.
When society became educated, people developed monikers that included their name or some other distinguishing characteristic that was unique to them. Even those who were uneducated or never learned to read or write were required to leave their “mark” when signing for something, as the “X” was still acceptable.
Thanks to lawyers, civilized society became more complicated, requiring reams of paperwork to be authorized and, therefore, “signed.” Most adults developed a unique signature to be used for such documents. Your signature defined and identified you.
A signature could be basic and readable, flowing and melodic, or complete gibberish. The more indistinguishable you made it, the more difficult it would be for someone to copy it.
Regardless, it was a personal choice that would define you for the rest of your life. Your signature needed to be the same every time to prove it was you on legal documents. We even created a profession called “Notary Public,” whose focus is to watch you sign a document and confirm that you signed it.
In grammar school, most kids practiced penning their signature. When I was in third grade, I began crafting a signature because I knew that someday, I would be the third baseman for the Mets and signing hundreds of baseballs for my adoring fans. When I made my Communion, I signed that autograph on the backs of over 100 wallet-sized photos of my cherubic face.
With the arrival of credit cards, suddenly your signature became part of everyday life. Retail clerks would examine the signature on the back of your card as compared to the one on the sales slip like they were vetting James Bond before allowing him into the secret vault. Soon, ATM and debit cards rapidly replaced cash and you couldn’t purchase a pack of gum without a signature.
Providing your signature became second nature after a while. Most of us got sloppy, maybe out of boredom, but when electronic pads replaced the little paper slips, your signature no longer seemed to matter. Sometimes I would scribble “Bugs Bunny” just to see if anyone was paying attention. They weren’t.
Somewhere along the line, cashiers just stopped checking your signature.
Then came online shopping via credit card and your signature wasn’t needed at all, only the 3-digit security code on the back of the credit card. Apparently, identify thieves haven’t figured out to look on the back of a credit card when making fraudulent purchases.
A few years ago, an educational decision was made as part of Common Core to no longer teach “cursive” writing in school (when did they stop calling it “script?”). Now you have to wonder; what is going to happen to the human signature moving forward? How do we explain to future generations that we once had squiggly lines for each letter and when you put them together, they looked really cool? How will they ever learn to read documents like the Declaration of Independence, which is written entirely in script?
Maybe it’s kind of ironic that the first generation to go without signatures has already been labeled by society as “Generation X.”