The great literacy machine

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The computer, not always the first to read its own printout, has seized upon the statistic that a lot of people, according to computer tests, are functionally illiterate. The computer is about to do something about it. In the near future, we are promised, more and more terminals are going to be talking to us rather than relying upon our increasingly precarious ability to read their instructions.

In the meantime, Bell Laboratories in New Jersey has stepped into the emergency, developing a computer that will make a quick fix on our dwindling powers of print communication until the new talking computers come on line, replacing reading and writing forever.

The Bell engineers call their computer the Writer's Workbench. They might have called it Strunk and White or Theodore Bernstein because both ''The Elements of Style'' and ''The Careful Writer'' by those authors-on-authoring have been programmed into the Workbench.

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The Workbench, in effect, is a mechanical literary critic. A person feeds in his or her tortured prose and out pop suggestions such as haven't been heard since Miss Totman tut-tutted over your sixth-grade English papers. Simplify! Use ''use'' instead of ''utilize.'' And stop splitting all those infinitives, or else.

Then the Workbench, like Miss Totman, gives one final sniff and grades you. The editors of Discovery magazine had the clever idea awhile back of submitting for judgment the Gettysburg Address and the first paragraph of ''A Tale of Two Cities.'' The Workbench was not pleased. It ordered Lincoln to shorten his sentences - an average of 26.7 words in length - to something closer to 15. ''Your document,'' the Workbench advised him, ''contains many more complex sentences than is common for this type of text.''

But Lincoln got off lightly compared to Dickens, whose sentences proved to be 100 percent ''complex.'' The Workbench had a couple of helpful suggestions. Instead of reading, ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .'', the opening sentence might run: ''The times were the best and worst, wise and foolish.''

See what we're driving at, Charlie?

As for Abe and his ''Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty . . .''? Well, Workbench cut through all that verbiage to produce this streamlined alternative: ''Eighty-seven years ago our grandfathers created a free nation here.''

All we can say is: don't let Workbench near the King James Bible. And any delinquent who feeds W. W. ''To be or not to be . . .'' ought to be dangled from the nearest participle.

The electric jogging track was invented to give people the exercise that all the other machines, like automobiles and escalators, were sparing them. There's the same irony to the Writer's Workbench - not to mention all those audio-visual devices schools buy for their Communications Consultancy Centers when they discover Johnny can't read, at least partly because of all the television he watches.

Don't get us wrong. We're practically crazy about computers. But the world needs programmers to tell the programmers what to program computers for. As they like to say in the trade: what should be the man-machine interface?

We like the answer of Charles Shoemaker, an engineer at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. ''The idea is to use a robot to eliminate an onerous, difficult, and fatiguing type of task,'' Mr. Shoemaker has concluded - and he doesn't mean reading or writing. He means war.

Now if war could be turned into a kind of sci-fi drama of sophisticated tin soldiers vs. sophisticated tin soldiers, that would be a truly civilized use of the machine. Then soldiers and the rest of us might have the leisure to learn how to read and write properly again. All by ourselves. Without machines.

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