Yesterday I was invited to a seminar titled The litterati and the illiterate literate: the problem of medieval literacies. A little out of my usual field, but it was super interesting. There were a lot of parallels I could see, both diachronically (e.g. British art of paperwork going all the way back to the Middle Ages) and synchronically (e.g.Chinese letters in medieval Korea served, just like Latin script in medieval England, as a class distinguisher). While listening to the presentation, I also fondly remembered a group project I did with two classmates in Grenoble about why French politicians are unusually keen to write books.
What I want to make a note in this post is something else. By the end of the session, the discussion converged towards the special place that seals held in England after the Conquest. The presenter, Brian Creese, brought to our attention the extent of literacy practice at that time, and mentioned as an anecdote that the resultantly burgeoning bureaucracy led to a tenfold increase in sealing wax consumption at one point!
A while ago, I read a very convincing theory about why the Korean practice of online identity authentication has evolved so far away from the rest of the world. Well, at the end of the day, the country is even described as “the Galapagos islands of the Internet“. Kim Nakho, or more popularly known in the Korean media sphere as @capcold, states that the Korean system places the responsibility on users to verify their own identities and, to that end, requires to get a unique digital certificate issued by the national certificate authority. Kim’s theory is that this is deeply rooted in the cultural tradition of using a seal. And in this context, guarding your seal/certificate secure is your job, which he argues explains why you are mandated to install so many designated security applications before doing online banking or any online transaction (e.g. the whole ActiveX saga; see also around 6:16 into the Galapagos video above).
On the contrary, in the West, ink signatures have been the prevailing method. With signatures, what matters more is your act of signing a document and the act being witnessed, not you producing the exact same signature every time (although the latter is also important, especially when there is a suspicion of counterfeit, but comparatively speaking). According to Kim, in this ritualised context, the balance of responsibility tips towards those who mediate the signing act, namely your bank, Amazon, and eBay.
Funny if we think about it. It’s like at a forked road between the seal or signature metaphor, some countries went one way and others the other, and that choice has shaped up so much of their respective policies for digital life.