Verba manent, scripta Volant #1: Nuclear semiotics: the preservation of information for ever.

Verba manent, scripta Volant #1: Nuclear semiotics: the preservation of information for ever.

The handwritten signature and the tailcoat. (Posted 2012-12-10)[m1]

There are just three ontological (i.e. necessary, unavoidable) changes affecting how we interact with data/information generated/managed by computers, in comparison to how we interact with analogue (i.e. paper based) registrations/inscriptions/documents.

The first two differences are immanent, even with stand-alone computers.

The third difference is a consequence of computer networking on closed Local Area Networks (LAN).

A fourth difference is often mentioned, but on closer inspection, it is not an inherent [m2] difference between analogue and digital data/information; it is the consequence of (bad) design of IT systems.

The function of documents and of signatures has remained unchanged, if compared to their inherent nature (ontology) in the last 2000 years, even after digitalisation.


Digitalisation of data/information has changed the following two fundamental aspects of how information is generated, accessed and processed:

Change #1 (ontological): digital data, information and documents are not perceivable/understandable by humans, without the use of some tools (displays, speakers or printers). The relation between the human person and the information/document has become mediated.

Change #2 (ontological): the creation/elaboration of data/information has become much more complex and sophisticated. Data crunching and word processors made it possible for a single user (since the first day of personal computing) to create documents of such a great complexity that before digitalisation entire teams of dedicated people were needed in order to create them.

Computers interconnected on a Local Area Network (LAN) have introduced a third ontological change in the way documentation is generated and shared:

Change #3 (ontological): already with LANs (Local Area Networks), the physical location of the machine keeping the data/information became irrelevant as long as the IT system keeping such data/information would allow (only) the person entitled to do so to access them[1]..

These are the true ontological changes that have affected digital documents (and digital registrations and digital inscriptions).

There is a fourth change, according to many:

“Change #4”. Many (if not all) users of an IT system have unrestricted access to the same digital data/information, without any possibility for the other users to be aware of it. A paper document can be accessed only by those who can access the room/drawer/file where the paper is archived.

Proper design of IT systems managing digital data/information could have been easily designed from scratch in a way to guarantee that

a) access is restricted
b) access (when permitted) is traceable
c) change is restricted
d) change (when permitted) is traceable
exactly as it was (and is) customary with paper based documents. Proper design of the IT system would have made digital data/information more secure and even more difficult to modify than paper based documents and with a complete audit track of the changes. So, in my opinion, there is no “Change #4”, there is “Bad Design #1”: the digital home of digital data had no doors, no locks, everyone had access to the system and was entitled to change its data/information (i.e. recordings, inscriptions, and documents).

The true inherent changes are all related to Change#1, Change#2 and Change#3 and thereof combinations.

The modifiability of digital data/information is not inherent to IT systems, it is a consequence of given (bad) design.

Furthermore, IT experts believe in some kind of common sense about modifiability of data/information that is plainly wrong, according to semiotics.

The lifecycle of data/information is essential in order to define its semiotic characteristics:

If there is the need to make information available for 10.000 years or more, an inscription on some support will not work:
a1. because the sign may fade to the point of being unrecognizable;
a2. because the language will have changed so much that nobody will be able to understand it anymore (languages change to the point of becoming impossible to understand in a time span between 200 and 800 years)
a3. because the support of the sign may have decayed.
So, according to the Human Interference Task Force, only a properly designed activity that has continued for 10.000 years can convey information, not just a sign on a medium.
One of the solutions proposed in order to make information available for over 10.000 years is the creation of an “Atomic Priesthood”
In the end, only oral tradition can bridge information beyond a millennium. This is why for each religion it is important to have rites through which to pass its timeless truth (for Christianity, it is the Sunday mass). For information that have to last for millennia, the sign and the medium on which the sign is engraved have to change necessarily and evolve with the evolution of the human society!

If we need to provide information for a time span that is within the combined duration of the language and of the medium used, then a static “document” (i.e. registration, inscription or document, in their ontological meaning) can fulfil the task (see my previous post  In this case, the meaning of “static” and “modifiable” are relative to the purpose of the “document” (i.e. document, inscription or recording) (2)[2]. Legislation may define the minimum formal requirements of legal documents, depending on their use and relevance: there are requirements on how to write down legislation (parchment is required by some constitutions), on the formal requirements of a contract in written form (all civil law systems provide such a definition) or of a handwritten will (most civil law systems provide a definition of holograph testament); moreover, there are requirements on the formal requirements of banknotes and formal identification documents, passports, or other documents representing equity or obligations of public/private companies, and so on. Proof by witnesses, presumptions or formal documentation are needed in order to provide the full proof of a legal act or of a legal fact, depending on the legal system. The strongest requirements are on a limited set of contracts:

b1. for some of them, it is necessary to have not only a document, but also witnesses attesting the origin and the authenticity of a document, with an interesting mix of written and oral documentation: e.g. marriage;
b2. for some others, it is necessary that they are filed and archived by the competent authority (registrar of companies, or secretary of state): e.g. limited liability companies; real estate property.

Nevertheless, no legislation makes the validity of documents, depending on their inherent modifiability. What counts is that in the few cases where a specific form of the contract is required by the law, the form of documents is compliant to such law.  So it shall be for digital documents.


What has not changed with digitalisation?

The function of a document has not changed. Commonplace is to state that digital documents are not inherently static, like paper based documents, implying that they may not be real documents.

Now, the truth is that all documents become unreadable after more than 800 years, either because the traces in the support fade away or because the support decays. So what is “static”? A written leaf of paper left in the rain becomes unreadable after few minutes. It is (was) possible to forge passports and even banknotes in order to figure out how easy it may be to forge a contract written in ink on a normal DIN A4 page!

And if you keep an archive of chronologically organised papers in a building, whose walls are made of mud, with no doors, no locks, no heating, no ventilation and no maintenance, also such documents will mold, stick together and become useless after just a few years (or just one bad winter, or one rainy season).

So, the concept of “static document” is very relative and poorly defined, as a small talk commonplace.

A “static” piece of paper implies quite a lot of organisation and technology, which we simply take for granted. But if we lived in an igloo in Iceland or in a hut in the Amazons, such organisation and technology would be very hard to get by.

Also digital files could be protected by default and by design:

of the hardware used to store and manage such files and/or

of the operating system and/or

of access management software and/or

by a combination of the above mentioned technologies.

So, the only novelty about digital documents is:

that humans are able to perceive them only through some tools (computers) that elaborate them logically (and not analogically, like with magnifying glasses, microscopes or symmetric code-decryption) and

that they are extremely more complex than written paper.

Before ubiquitous computing, even digital documents used to live within the borders of a given single piece of hardware or of a single LAN, so that their origin and their context were defined. This is not true anymore, now that a huge amount of data/information/documents are exchanged every day over open networks.

So, it may be that digital data/information/documents (i.e. recordings, inscriptions and documents) get modified involuntarily or unless the author(s) is aware of it. But this was true also of all archived documents, particularly when the archivist was a different person than its author.

This hypothetical difference between analogue and digital data/information/documents (i.e. digital recordings, inscriptions and documents), in the end, comes down to how a specific digital or analogue document has been archived and preserved, and is not an ontological difference.

The current common sense according to which digital documents are inherently dynamic and easily forgeable, if compared to paper based documents, is not an absolute truth. It takes for granted many aspects of the current design of information technology that may change radically, even in the near future.

The function of the signature has not changed. It is true, handwritten signatures cannot be affixed to any digital data/information/document (i.e. registration/inscription/document) in order to validate it. But this is hardly new! Humanity is back to square one: digital documents may be marked with some elaborated sign that has no biometric link to the author of the document (electronic signature), exactly as it was customary from the second Century B.C. to the mid of the nineteen Century A.D.: a time when “scribes” drafted and signed documents on behalf of the author(s). It was the time before graphology had been invented as a (disputed) pseudoscience by Abbé Michon, who became interested in handwriting analysis in 1830 . He published his findings shortly after founding Société Graphologique in 1871.

For about two millennia, signatures were routinely affixed (in a mediated way) by slaves or employees of the signer. No more and no less, like now, when we add our name and surname at the end of an email, typing them on the keyboard. As with handwritten signatures appended by the scribes on behalf of the signer, validation of digital registrations/inscriptions/documents has become a highly complex process, in which social engineering and technology ensure the authenticity and the origin authentication of the digital data.

The social engineering part in Rome was the Forum, where it was compulsory to close agreements and where it was compulsory to open the seals and seal the contracts in order to keep their validity and forcefulness. In the Middle Age, the Forum was replaced by the Notary’s office. Today, social engineering is provided by contractual law, legal compliance and accountancy rules.

In ancient Rome, the technological part was represented by the sealed wooden tables that were conserved by the parties of the agreement (very similarly to a digital document with an electronic signature!). In the Middle Age, the technological part was the professional organisation of archives (with encryption/decryption facilities) by the Notaries and the Clerks of the government. Today, the technologies are ERPs, document management systems and PKIs.

From a global and historic perspective, the reliance on the ability to verify a handwritten signature, through a graphologist, existed for only less than 150 years out of two millennia. This is the reason why the presence of witnesses has remained customary in private negotiations and is still mandatory (in some legal systems) in the most relevant notarial contracts.

The biometric handwritten signature (on paper) had the same lifespan of the tailcoat with the white bow tie!



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