by Alan Levinovitz
I congratulate you, my dear Cornelia, on having acquired the valuable art of writing. How delightful to be enabled by it to converse with an absent friend, as if present!
— Thomas Jefferson
She hesitated, and then, impulsively, “I wonder if it would be too much to ask you for your autograph?”
Ralph then attached the Telautograph to his Telephot while the girl did the same. When both instruments were connected he signed his name and he saw his signature appear simultaneously on the machine in Switzerland.
— Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+ (1911)
On February 27th, Toni Morrison took part in an online “Hangout” hosted by Google Play, during which she video-chatted with a few lucky fans from around the country before signing their copies of Home. The cover of each person’s ebook was personalized remotely (“For ______ / Toni Morrison”), and images of the covers were posted to the Google Play page as well as Morrison’s profile page. According to Publishers Weekly, Morrison also signed paperback editions of the novel for Google employees in New York, her physical location during the Hangout.
Debate about the pros and cons of ebooks usually focuses on the relationship between a text’s significance and its medium, passing over the trivial issue of a signature’s significance. But signatures are actually an instructive test case when it comes to the fetishization of books as physical objects. Although many people would prefer to read a digital version of Home, it’s a good bet Google’s most ardent technophiles didn’t ask Morrison to sign their tablets instead of their paperbacks.
Signatures possess an idiosyncratic significance that does not translate well into bits and bytes. Even human interaction seems easier to digitize, a strange paradox vividly illustrated by Margaret Atwood’s 2006 invention of the LongPen. The LongPen combines standard video-chat functionality with a robotic signing station, purchasable, in theory, by any local bookstore. After meeting an author online, fans place their books in the station. Then, like a remote surgery system, the robot’s pen-wielding “hand” is guided in real time by its absent operator, faithfully reproducing virtual pen strokes in ink on a real page.
Atwood explains: “You don’t have to be in the same room as someone to have a meaningful exchange. As I was whizzing around the United States on yet another demented book tour […] I thought, ‘There must be a better way of doing this.’” She has now teamed up with Fanado, a company that distinguishes itself from other online signing services like Authorgraph.com and Autography.com in part by offering virtual fans a personalized “wet-ink” signature. But the LongPen’s supposed advantage raises some interesting questions. If, as Atwood claims, you don’t have to be in the same room with someone to have a meaningful exchange, then why do you need ink for a meaningful signature? And if ink really is required, are there other requirements that the LongPen fails to meet?
The ancestry of disembodied writing devices can be traced back to the polygraph, a primitive copying machine patented in 1803 and made famous by Thomas Jefferson, who helped improve the design and had one installed for personal use at Monticello. Mounted on a flat platform, the polygraph links a master pen to two slave pens using a set of hinged wooden rods attached to a bridge or “gallows frame.” An enthusiastic archivist of his own work, Jefferson prized the polygraph for its ability to copy letters as he wrote them, allowing him to send one letter and keep two others for his records.
The polygraph was an extraordinary feat of engineering. According to the Library of Congress, “it is nearly impossible to determine which copy of the page was made by the pen held by Jefferson.” Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel like the “original” letters are somehow enchanted by their mode of production. This intangible difference is reflected in the rhetoric of auctioneers, who trumpet pages that come from the master pen, as well as in Jefferson’s habit of honoring correspondents with the original letters and archiving the polygraphed copies. In a blow to the LongPen, it appears that those who fetishize handwritten documents prefer them written by traditional hands.
Sadly, Jefferson never lived to see the LongPen’s true functional ancestor, the first machine specifically employed for long-distance signing. Ingeniously combining two of Jefferson’s favorite inventions, the pantelegraph was developed by Italian abbot and physicist Giovanni Caselli in the mid 19th century. Fascinated by the telegraph’s potential, Caselli began work on a device that could transmit facsimiles of letters and images. His efforts eventually attracted the attention of Napoleon III, who financed the project and granted Caselli access to the French telegraph system to conduct experiments. In 1860, the pantelegraph successfully transmitted an image between Paris and Amiens, a distance of 87 miles. The image chosen for the demonstration? A signature, that of composer Gioacchino Rossini. (The pantelegraph’s mechanics are incredibly complicated; think giant fax machine with a pendulum that requires you to write on special non-conducting paper before sending.)
Standard telegraph proved more efficient than the cumbersome pantelegraph for information transfer, and Caselli’s invention was used almost exclusively for verification in long-distance banking. Only pantelegraphed documents could provide the legal authority necessary for financial transactions, transmitting messages “immediately from the hand of the writer” and “conveying a facsimile of every word and syllable […] bearing the full authenticity of the hand and signature, according to John Timbs, in The Yearbook of Facts in Science in Art of 1862.
Notwithstanding the widespread adoption of the pantelegraph and its successors, the telautograph and the fax machine, people remain dubious about the ability of machines to (re)produce significant signatures. Take the recent controversy surrounding Obama’s use of the autopen, another popular remote signing device. Autopens are highly customizable autonomous signing machines, capable of storing a variety of signatures for use on everything from traditional documents to sports memorabilia. They are routinely employed by presidents: Truman signed his checks by autopen, and there is an entire book written about JFK and his autopen called The Robot that Helped to Make a President.
But when Obama signed the Patriot Act from France with his autopen, a group of 21 House GOP members protested the Constitutionality of the signature, citing Article 1, Section 7, Clause 2: “Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it…” Obama is not the autopen, argued the lawmakers, ergo he exceeded his Constitutional authority by having a “surrogate” sign the bill.
Fortunately, in 2005 the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel foresaw this problem and drafted an opinion for the Bush White House that justified Obama’s action. The opinion cites early common-law cases that locate the legal significance of a signature exclusively in the consent of the signatory: “if one of the officers of the forest put one seal to the Rolls by assent of all the Verderers, Regarders, and other Officers, it is as good as if every one had put his several seal….”
This seems like a reasonable position to take on a signature’s legal significance. But authors’ signatures have a different kind of significance, one that isn’t located in mere consent. That’s why Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t appeal to his legal counsel when it came out in 2005 that he’d been using the autopen to sign condolence letters for families of soldiers killed in action. It’s no surprise that the families (and the media) found the autopen signatures crucially lacking. A traditional signature requires time and personal attention. It is a sign of sacrifice, an element unnecessary for producing legal objects but essential for crafting sacred ones. Rumsfeld’s signatures may have been authorized, but they were utterly insignificant. (The same goes for Gregg Allman’s autopenned signatures on his memoir.)
The criterion of sacrifice might explain why LongPen and autopen signatures would be less significant than in-person signatures. Both machines, after all, are testaments to the signatory’s unwillingness to sacrifice time and effort. But according to the same logic, Toni Morrison’s virtual signatures should be no less significant than the paperback ones. She spent time producing them, in addition to interacting extensively with their recipients, a courtesy that probably wasn’t extended to the employees at Google’s New York office. So why the preference for pen on paper?
Resale value can’t account for it — signed copies of Morrison’s books can be had for a measly thirty bucks. Nor is scarcity an answer — there are far fewer of Morrison’s virtual signatures than her physical ones. As for the notion that digital signatures can’t be authenticated, well, the problem of authenticity is universal, affecting ink signatures and digital ones alike. It isn’t hard to imagine technology that could “tag” Morrison’s electronic signature, much as an ink signature is tagged by certain identifying characteristics. Digital forgery is a possibility, but that doesn’t explain why an “authentic” digital signature should be worth less. The fear that digital media are more perishable than paper was thoroughly discredited by David Bell in the New Republic, who points out that librarians are furiously digitizing physical media in the name of preservation. As any collector knows, paper books can fade, decay, suffer water damage, burn up, become lost or forgotten.
The mystery remains unresolved: for reasons independent of authorial sacrifice, the market, scarcity, authenticity, or perishability, physical signatures written by hand are more significant than their digital analogues.
In “Unready to Wear,” Kurt Vonnegut imagines a Kurzweilian future in which humans are “amphibious” — capable of becoming disembodied at will. Amphibiousness is a tremendous advantage: no disease, no injuries, no politics, no toilets, no “old-style reproduction,” near immortality. Amphibious Pioneers can “meet on the head of a pin,” and they are “true to themselves, no trouble to anyone, and not afraid of anything.” The friendly first-person narrator assures us that any perceived drawbacks to disembodiment aren’t real, “just old-fashioned thinking by people who can’t stop worrying about things they used to worry about before they turned amphibious.”
The only job left for amphibians involves maintaining storage centers, where spare bodies are kept. Occasionally some people get nostalgic for embodiment, and the bodies are there to accommodate them. The centers provide a specialized service, tailored to the aged; as Vonnegut’s narrator puts it, “the youngsters… don’t even worry much about something happening to the storage centers, the way us oldsters do.”
Almost as an aside, we learn that the bodies serve one other purpose. Each year a group of amphibians occupies them for the Pioneer’s Day Parade, held in honor of Doctor Konigswasser, the discoverer of amphibiousness. At the head of the parade marches Konigswasser’s body, a miserable thing that the doctor himself refuses to reinhabit: “Ulcers, headaches, arthritis, fallen arches — a nose like a pruning hook, piggy little eyes, and a complexion like a used steamer trunk.”
Understandably, Konigswasser talks about humans like some ebook purists talk about books: “The mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything. Why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, meat, bones, and tubes? No wonder people can’t get anything done….” And yet, his emancipation of humanity from the physical is commemorated by a ritual that itself requires embodiment. It is as if the amphibians recognize that sacred practices belong to the physical world, that humans are only venerable in virtue of their dual nature as minds enfleshed, inconvenient though it may be.
In their own small way, authorial signatures also commemorate our nature, which informs our preference that they be physical and produced without a complicated apparatus. When I look at Norton Juster’s signature in my copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, when I touch the ink of his inscription, I am told a powerful story: Norton Juster wrote this, in the flesh. The story connects me to another human, to the bag of skin and bones that spoke so meaningfully to me when I was a little boy. This is the point of signatures, of relics and special places great and small: their attachment to narratives of physical encounters. Kurt Vonnegut wrote on this typewriter. Thomas Jefferson sat right where you are sitting. Thousands died in this room; see their scratches on the walls. Such stories do not translate well into bits and bytes. The ritual of book signing, like the Pioneers Day Parade, cannot be disembodied without loss.
Here is the most profound difference between ebooks and paper books. It’s not that paper books can be signed in ink — that’s a trivial advantage. It’s that they serve so well as relics. When we finish a life-changing book we return it to the shelf, or the virtual shelf — I do not deny that powerful reading experiences can occur with ebooks just as easily. But when I see the spine of a physical book on my bookshelf, when I pick up that same companion many years later, I am told a powerful story: You read this, in the flesh. That is the only story I hear. A once-read paper book has no other purpose than to be itself, and picking it up no other purpose than to remind me of our time together. When you pick up an ereader, on the other hand, more likely than not it is for the sake of doing, not commemorating. Fifty years from now, my paper relics will still be sitting on the shrine of my bookshelf, but the only Kindle anyone will keep around is the one signed, in metallic Sharpie, by Jonathan Franzen.
Alan Levinovitz is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at James Madison University. Read more at Top Philosopher Dot Com.