Friday, August 18, 2006

Please Sign On the Dotted Line

Suppose you are house sitting for a friend and something important comes in the mail that needs to be taken care of immediately, something that requires a signature. You call your vacationing friend and explain the situation and the friend says that it can't wait until she gets home, please sign her name and send it out asap. Is this forgery? If so, is it morally wrong?

Signing your name is what Austin would call a performative use of language -- you are doing something with words rather than saying something with words. By signing a document, you may be displaying agreement or support of a statement (signing a petition), accepting the terms of a covenant (signing a contract), or accepting responsibility for something (signing for a package). Your friend in the example gave a clear indication that she was willing to accept what came with the signature, but the acceptance could only be verbal and not written. In asking you to sign for her, you were deputized, given the authority to speak on her behalf and it was done in a way that she not only approves of but directly requested. The needed signature was a mark of acceptance and that acceptance was given, you are just playing the role of messenger.

But the notion of a signature is starting to become obsolete. The functions of the signature are being taken over by "lock and key" information. Whether it is digital encoding, knowledge of a social security number, pin, or password, or possession of answers to questions like "What is your mother's maiden name?", "What was your first car?", "What is the first vowel in the name of your favorite Beatle?" (include Stuart Sutcliff and you get all the vowels), the idea is that there is only person whose informative key fits in the lock and that by providing the information, it is the same as a signature. It is this move towards non-signature signatures that has made identity theft something prevalent. Before the internet, the only place you'd ever see identity theft was in Shakespearean comedies -- and even then, you never could completely believe that they could really pull it off.

The move to "digital signatures" is strange because it removes one of the key elements of the signature, presence. Jacques Derrida wrote an interesting piece on exactly this question ("Signature, Event, Context" -- Aspazia made it part of a class we team-taught a couple years ago on the analytic-continental divide) and he points out that what is expressed by a signature is not merely assent or acceptance of what is signed, but a lasting artifact of your presence. Think about why people ask celebrities for autographs. An autograph says I really saw Brooks Robinson or Amy Tan or the guy who played the best friend of the boyfriend of the daughter on "Who's the Boss?" Part of the point of the signature is not just to say that I agree to what is signed, but that I was there. One of the most famous signature in history, of course, is John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence and the idea was not just that his name is there and that he agrees with the sentiments expressed, but that it not be at all ambiguous to King George that John Hancock was there, was part of the action. Think of graffiti or "Kilroy was here" -- the act of putting your name on something is to make it undeniable that you were present at some place. The concept of a signature comes from the signet rings of kings and high officials where if a latter was sealed with a certain insignia, you knew the hand of the King had been on that letter. Authentication in some way is connected with proof of presence.

This is what makes the signature question about the vacationing friend tricky. The needed signature is not only a sign of acceptance, but a sign of acceptance at that place by your friend. Set aside the possibility that your friend would later change her mind and say "I never signed that" -- the lack of her real signature displays a lack of actual presence and that is what was requested by the person who sent the letter. You are bound by your signature because you were there and you read it and you did physically receive this and not only have signaled your agreement, but have physically instantiated that acceptance. There is a thing -- your signature -- that exists as an independently verifiable fact of the world. But that fact is now a sham. Signing for your friend could therefore be seen as a form of lying, as you, trying to say that your linguistic act is really the act of someone else. Like Cyrano to Roxane, the sentiment may be authentic, but the act is a deception...albeit a harmless sort of deception that makes no real difference.

So, is it the spirit or the letter, in this case quite literally, the letter -- that is important?