The next time you sign a credit-card receipt, savor it.
While it may take time for the news to filter down to retailers, Visa, American Express, Discover and Mastercard have said that as of this month, they will no longer require customers to sign their names when paying with a credit card.
The signature has had a good run. It’s not dead, but it is dying. And as at most newspapers, we at The New York Times get our obituaries ready before the plug is pulled. Survivors and descendants of the signature include the autograph, the Twitter handle and the emoji. There’s also that handwriting hand jiggle that everybody makes to get a waiter’s attention.
It’s no surprise that the importance of signing things has faded. Last year, hackers remotely locked the doors of an Austrian hotel and demanded a payoff in Bitcoin, which they got. In a world like that, does anyone really think some cursive scrawled on a piece of paper matters?
Every obit, and I’ve written a few in my time, goes back to the beginning. In this case, there’s not complete clarity where that is. Egypt, some say. I turned to the main historical reference used in my house, Guinness World Records, which says that the signature was born in ancient Iraq.
“The earliest surviving examples” the Guinness record book reports, are “those made by scribes on cuneiform clay tablets.” Specifically, around 2600 B.C.E., a bookkeeper “named ‘a-du’” signed his name as “‘Adu, scribe.’”
The writing of that era has always impressed me for its graphic precision, a series of nimble impressions left on wet clay. But maybe if Adu had to go around signing credit card receipts all the time, he would have taken to scribbling like the rest of us.
If signatures started out as a way for record keepers to leave their mark, by the 17th century they were seen as cutting-edge fraud fighting tools. Britain’s 1677 Statute of Frauds required signatures “for prevention of many fraudulent Practices which are commonly endeavored to be upheld by Perjury and Subornation of Perjury.” The legislation was a model for others to follow.
But Britain and the rest of Europe moved on well before we did in the United States. I actually only recently relearned to sign my name after living in London for four years. A bank manager over there once chuckled at me when I asked for a checkbook. I could tell he was about to have a conversation he’d had with other American expats. Nobody in that city — from the landlords to the orthodontists — used checks. They just transferred money from one bank account to another. Years ago their credit cards contained the microchips that replace signing. You can even tap your card against the turnstile to pay for a ride on the London tube.
American culture has preferred credit to debit, and so signing has stuck around longer. But new credit cards have converted to chip cards that are harder to counterfeit.
“Signatures are becoming more irrelevant,” said Harshita Rawat, an analyst at Bernstein Research. “The final nail in the coffin was the chip card.”
If you want to pay with your phone, many use fingerprint scanners to authorize transactions, and Apple’s got facial recognition on its iPhone X while Samsung uses iris scanning on the Galaxy S8. Visa has also rolled out prototype rings, pins and even sunglasses that you can scan instead of using a card.
“In the future, I’d imagine that we’ll be evolving to a world where there won’t be the physical presentation of a card,” said Eric Wasserstrom, a financial analyst at UBS. He called faking a signature a minor problem. “The bigger concern is someone hacking into your network.”
Several of the largest retailers, including Walmart and Target, have moved to drop the signature requirement. Home Depot had already waived the requirement for purchases under $50, and plans to do the same for larger purchasers, but hasn’t set a date yet. Stephanie Cunha, a spokeswoman for CVS, said “We are evaluating our options but have no specific changes to announce at this time.”
Something will be lost as signatures disappear. For one, we can learn a lot from a person’s signature. President Trump’s jagged seismograph printout looks like he leans in to his Sharpie. By contrast, his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, avoids cursive altogether in favor of an aggressively legible signature on the dollar bill. Not a surprise for a guy who loves to be noticed.
Pablo Picasso knew how to draw a line as well as anyone who ever held a pen, and it showed when he underlined his own artful signature. John Hancock’s ‘John Hancock’ looks like a piece of calligraphy. The German artist Albrecht Durer kept it simple, putting a D inside an A.
As someone who goes by his middle name, a signature is just a lot of trouble I’m happy to leave behind. Am I signing as Jonathan Hakim? Jonathan Daniel Hakim? J. D. Hakim? Danny Hakim? Can I remember how to do the capital cursive D because it’s been awhile? If I have to sign one of those machine pads next to the checkout counter does it really matter what I do? If I signed my name Don Dokken would anyone notice?
These are the questions. For another day, at least. For now, I’ve got another check to sign.