June 29th, 2008
Swear to tell the truth
I work in the financial services industry and have securities licenses that require continuing education. I recently completed an annual compliance training and at the end of the web-based session, in order to receive credit, I had to click on a button that said: “I attest.” This is the first time I’d encountered that verb on a button.
A definition of to attest goes like this:
to bear witness to; certify; declare to be correct, true, or genuine; declare the truth of, in words or writing, esp. affirm in an official capacity: to attest the truth of a statement.
When I click a button that says “I attest,” I’m not agreeing to a contract as with the clicking of “I agree,” I’m certifying and bearing witness that some set of statements is true. To me, this is something that seemed beyond the capability of the click of a button to convey. Bearing witness seems to suggest physical presence, a meeting of eyes and understanding. When I click a button there’s just me and the computer, the click sends some data across the Network. In this case, the data was an attestation of the truth.
Bearing witness has historically required a verbal pledge or a wet signature on a document. The idea of the electronic signature has been around for years with little or no traction. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea, and it would help tremendously with the workflow of business documents, but no one actually owns a usable electronic signature. The question of the signature is really a question about identity and presence. What does it mean to attest to something as an authenticated user of a particular system?
When I attest to the truth of some set of statements, generally I do so before the whole world by making a mark (my signature) that affirms my identity and expresses my claim. Or in the presence of proper authorities, I raise my hand and verbally assert the truth of the statements to follow. Can I do that by clicking on a button on a web page?
As the live web gets closer and closer, as solutions for identity on the Network start to solidify, I can’t imagine that clicking a button that says “I attest” will be sufficient. Bearing witness requires presence and connection in real time. Of course, understanding what it means to speak the truth, to swear to tell the truth, is another matter altogether.