San Francisco — In the future, not being able to use a computer may be like signing your name with an ''X,'' while the ability to spell and a knowledge of grammar may not be too important.
The spread of personal computers is redefining our basic concepts of literacy , says Benjamin Compaine, executive director of the Harvard Information Resources Policy program.
Originally, literacy meant the ability to read. In the 15th century, the skill of writing was added. Today, the ability to find and manipulate information electronically is becoming as important as writing after the invention of the printing press.
So how does one gain these new skills?
''First, people are going to learn despite themselves,'' Mr. Compaine says reassuringly. As telephones, television, appliances, and other common devices are increasingly computerized, people will become more familiar with these devices and how they work.
''Then, there is the more conscious approach,'' he continues. Those who wish can acquire a considerable amount of knowledge and understanding by reading computer magazines and following what's happening in the industry.
The Harvard information expert does not think it necessary to learn how to program a computer in order to qualify as being computer literate. It is enough to know how to use a microcomputer with accompanying software. Rudimentary programming skills are valuable but not essential to operate today's microcomputers. As the technology progresses, this knowledge is getting less and less important.
Compaine says he doubts that video games harm children. As he sees it, they actually demystify the machines for youngsters and teach them fundamental computer skills. He sees a parallel between the current concern over video games and the 19th-century controversy over public libraries. At the time, opponents of libraries worried that the common folk would fritter away their time reading novels.
Far more significant to computer literacy, however, is the grass-roots effort to introduce computers into the school system.
Unlike ''new math'' and other education innovations of recent past, the impetus for computer education is coming from parents and the community, rather than from educators, Compaine points out. As he sees it, even though schools generally are not using computers very well, ''the availability of the machines means that kids are discovering computers on their own.''
While growing demands for computer literacy represent an added challenge, the capabilities of computers may make some of the traditional measures of literacy less important.
For instance, many computers run ''spelling checker'' programs. These scan for words that fail to correspond with those found in the the up-to-100,000-word dictionaries they contain.
Electronic thesauruses are also available where writers may explore for synonyms for a given word at the touch of a button. There are programs that even check punctuation and grammar.
Ultimately, computers may handle a lot more of these technical details of writing. This, in turn, may blunt some individual attention to writing rudiments in somewhat the same way that pocket calculators have made the ability to perform long division with paper and pencil less important.
''Right now, we are in an era comparable to the age of silent films in the history of cinema,'' Compaine says.