Why signatures will always matter

“AND bee it further enacted That all Grants and Assignments of any Trust or Confidence shall likewise be in Writeing signed by the partie granting or assigning the same or by such last Will or Devise or else shall likewise be utterly void and of none effect.” Thus spake the Statute of Frauds, first enacted into English law in 1677 and making legally binding the notion of the handwritten signature.

While autographs had existed for millennia (the earliest recorded signature is carved on the back of a Sumerian stone tablet, and craftspeople across the classical world would leave marks sliced across wet mortar or as brush strokes on china), it was this English statute, its principles copied across the globe, that gave our scrawled marks the legal standing they retain today.

The statute was implemented to deal with the consequences, should things go wrong following an agreement. Until that point the main tool in English court was use of witnesses, whose perceptions were not always guaranteed to be honest. Even though it could be forged, the signature was considered a safer and (indeed simpler) bet.

Despite the best efforts of the technological revolution to make everything data-driven, we could be watching history repeat itself. The digital mechanisms that drove the advent of the ‘paperless office’, itself touted to end the bureaucratic baggage that accompanies many office environments, have created a backdrop of complexity and clutter across our decisions and interactions.

The plethora of electronic channels sometimes adds risk to our engagements, because it is not always obvious what has been agreed where. Email (only recently considered to be legally valid in the US) has its own chequered history around fraud; equally, the low uptake of non-repudiation mechanisms such as digital signing means the source of an email can be difficult to prove. Meanwhile, social tools may on occasion be used to confirm the finer details of an agreement, or acknowledge a review, with little or no audit trail.

Such complexity is easy to exploit, even at the highest levels of business. How often have we all looked for the message that confirmed the brief, or the price of a job — was it on Twitter, or in an email? Was it even with an authorised person, with agreed terms? It is too often after the fact (and potentially during an emerging conflict, or even a legal situation) that we find that such terms were never agreed with any precision.

So, what’s the answer? First we must recognise that technology can never solve all the problems — it is, ultimately, juts a set of tools that collectively help or hinder business decision making and relationship building. Whether you are client or provider in a given transaction, we would propose the following three-point plan:

  • Keep communications simple — the first danger sign is the use of multiple channels for a conversation
  • It’s never too late — take the time to establish the brief, or the terms, in advance of an agreement
  • Acknowledge the ‘moment of agreement’ — look for explicit confirmation, using a mechanism to suit the situation

This final point, the original driver to paper signatures, will likely sustain as long as we require clarity in otherwise complex situations. By marking the moment we force ourselves to stop, think and potentially regain a level of personal control at the same time as reducing business risk. It is not a coincidence that we still feel an emotional attachment to our own autographs, and this need for personal acknowledgement may be the ultimate reason why signatures, whatever form they take, will sustain.

This Change.org petition response shows how much Uber has changed

Uber has just responded to a group of Change.org petitioners protesting Uber’s background check policies in India, following the alleged rape of a passenger by a driver with an assault record. After the petition reached more than 63,000 signatures, Uber India safety lead Deval Delivala wrote a 600-word apology, explaining the steps the company is taking to improve its driver vetting process in the country.

Thursday night, the company said it will start doing its own background checks on drivers, instead of relying on government certification programs to vet the drivers adequately.

600 words might not seem too long to the average person, but by Uber’s standards this is a humble pie manifesto. It far exceeds the length of apologies or safety explanations Uber has sent to media in the past. I realized when rereading my old stories on Uber that it’s a complete 180 from the company’s response to assault incidents in 2013.

In the Change.org apology, Delivala covered everything from Uber’s reaction to the alleged rape (it was a “deeply sobering reminder that we must always be vigilant”) to what it taught Uber about background checks in India. She explained how the company is trying to strengthen its system, through things like a document verification system and an incident response team. She finished up with a bold promise: “We will repay [your] support with action and live up to the trust that you have placed in us.”

It may just be lip service, but it’s a new, refreshing kind of lip service. As recently as September, Buzzfeed found that Uber sent media the same two sentence response to any situation involving passenger safety, whether a rape, assault, or pedestrian injury. During one of Uber’s biggest scandals when an executive threatened to dig up dirt on journalists, CEO Travis Kalanick famously issued a 13 part tweet apology with very little apology actually included. After the rape of an Indian passenger in December, he published a blog post that was only 100 words.

These may be inadequate responses to terrible incidents, but they’re still far better than Uber’s old way of dealing with safety issues. In 2013, Uber used to claim it wasn’t responsible for its passengers’ safety. It didn’t think it was culpable for the actions of drivers or passengers on its platform (much like Facebook wouldn’t be responsible if one user threatened another on the site). Uber’s then-spokesperson told me that point blank after an SF driver hit a passenger. He said, “We’re not law enforcement…If law enforcement pursues this, we would cooperate. But we’re a technology platform that connects riders and providers, so it’s not our job to investigate.”

The Change.org apology shows how far the company has come. It still has major ethical issues and PR tactics to iron out, but at least it has started accepting responsibility for the incidents that occur through its service.