Leading article: Sign of the times

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Medieval artists rarely, if ever, signed their work. It was done for the glory of God, usually as part of a team effort. Masons poured out their creative spirit on cathedrals, knowing full well they would never see the final product.

That changed in the Renaissance, when the artist or author stepped out of the background into the limelight, since which the cult of the autograph has gone from strength to strength. Quite what the patient people queuing in bookshops hope to get out of the experience is not always clear. If some hope for an artefact of commercial value, for others it is a faintly mystical experience, putting the punter in contact with the creative spirit.

Or rather, it was. For the Canadian author Margaret Atwood yesterday revolutionised the autograph when she pioneered the use of her own invention, the LongPen. This device enabled her to autograph a book long-distance without going anywhere near it. She signed a screen with a magnetic pen while, at a distance, an electronic arm autographed the page.

Atwood's company, Unotchit, cheerfully insists this innovation will not diminish the few seconds of intimacy that the autograph hunter has traditionally enjoyed with the author. There will apparently be "more time for conversation and eye contact".

We wonder. There remains something slightly, if indefinably, depressing about this particular technological breakthrough. It is hard to put one's finger on it, but somewhere along the line, the ceremony will, one suspect, have been emptied of its magic. Auction houses will now have to offer a two-tier category of autographs, one lot done in the flesh as it were, and others by remote control.

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