Renewing a driver's license has never been a fun experience. In today's high-tech and security-phobic world, it's about as appealing as an appointment with Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984. In part this is due to the new federal regulations intended to make it harder to forge ID documents, thereby presumably making us feel ever so much more secure.
Yeah, right. First of all, in order to prove you are who you say you are, you're required to show your Social Security card before you can get a driver's license. The only card I found, buried in my jewelry box, was the original one I got when I was 16, a few decades and two surnames ago. (The one, by the way, that still says, "Not for identification" on it.)
So before I could renew my driver's license, I had to get a replacement Social Security card. To get the Social Security card, I had to identify myself by showing—guess what?—my driver's license.
This week, then, I went to the driver's license office duly armed (if I'm allowed to use such a potentially inflammatory term) with the new card, plus my passport, plus a certified copy of my birth certificate, plus a phone bill and a tax form to verify my physical address (and may the god in charge of protecting us from bureaucracy help all those poor souls who get all their mail at post office boxes). I felt sooo secure, until it occurred to me that a really easy way to create a false identity would be to mug someone on the way into the driver's license office.
I filled out the application form. I dutifully punched the electronic gatekeeper gadget and got my number. I sat down to wait, clutching my file folder with all my documentation. There wasn't, of course, so much as a tattered back issue of People magazine to read. Still, the time passed relatively quickly, thanks largely to an air of nervous solidarity among the waiting applicants, rather like the bonding that can occur in the waiting room of a hospital or a prison on visiting day.
Eventually my number appeared on the electronic reader above the counter and the computer's electronic voice summoned me to "Station 2." I handed over my pile of papers and expiring license to an actual person, an impersonal but courteous young woman who shuffled through them, photocopied something, checked my vision, and took my $20. Then she had me sign my name on an electronic reader with a bulky electronic pen.
One of my pet peeves—mostly, I thought, in jest—has been the idea that future generations might think my actual signature was a shaky electronic one resembling something written by a semiliterate chimpanzee with a crayon. That is no longer a joke. Exactly such a signature, purporting to be my handwriting, is what appears on my new driver's license. The only person whose signature would actually match such a wobbly electronic scrawl would be someone way too drunk to drive.
At this stage in the whole uplifting process, of course, it was time to get my picture taken. No wonder so few driver's license photos show anyone smiling.
I've figured that part out, though. The new license makes it impossible to identify people by our electronic signatures. But just imagine being stopped for speeding by the highway patrol. The trooper comes up to the car and asks for your driver's license. You dig it out, feeling embarrassed, defensive, guilty, and maybe a little bit angry. You hand it over. The officer looks at the picture, then at your face. Yep. You'll look exactly like your photo.