For many weeks coming to the office has meant confronting a square gray box hovering over my desk. The box has a screen that glows green and gives off peremptory messages. For a while, it said "enter software material here." Since I felt at times like the software, I took some umbrage at the order. Today the green lights spell out different instructions. The box gives me a number -- 533 -- and tells me to enter my name, through a keyboard below, in a blank space on center screen. But then, contrary as its nature seems to be, it issues a sharp rebuke, in capital letters, even before my name is entered: "INVALID NAME." If this is intended to inspire fear or feelings of rejection, the colometallic brain of my machine succeeds admirably.

The computer age finally has come to this corner of the newspaper business. For a scribbler like myself, who clings stubbornly to an old manual Royal typewriter instead of the more modern electric models available and who writes most of my stories in longhand before transferring the words by arduous process of scratches and revisions, to copy paper via typewriter, and this is upsetting, if not terrifying.

It represents progress, of course, a term Zbigniew Brzezinski once unfelicitously tried to equate with what he called "modernity," a dreadfully stiff word, and most businesses long since have made the transition from primitive past to promising future. Now our time approaches.

One of the reasons I still glory in the newspaper business is the inherent air of irreverence that surrounds the practitioners. Ever since the introduction of the computer terminals that will change our daily professional lives, the newsroom has been sprouting with the work of our free spirits. Over one computer screen a large picture of Darth Vadar has been pasted. Another bears the picture of a dolphin, gracefully leaping in air, suspended over the green light that shines forth from the machine. Across the room, someone with a puckish sense of humor has affixed a large picture of Redford and Hoffman playing the intrepid Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein. A shot of a large potato dominates another terminal.

What our earnest young MBA's from Harvard and MIT think of such behavior from supposedly mature professionals toiling at the heart of this highly profitable news enterprise lies beyond my ability to suggest. But I, for one, salute it as a refreshing example of coping with the rigors of modernity.

Now the pictures and posters must come down. The fun is over. A memo informs me, and the rest of the staff, that we are scheduled to attend training classes beginning next week. Understandably, all are expected to attend unless "there's a serious conflict in your schedule."

Alas, I am in conflict. Either through poor planning or cowardice my schedule carries me away from the cumputers and away from the staleness of Washington. For the next few weeks, anyway, I will escape to the country at large and continue to operate in the old-fashioned way, with pen and pad, typewriter and paper.

Every presidential election presents a special opportunity to take a reading on the nation and its people. You do not get that portrait from traveling with the candidates in the enforced isolation of the campaign trail, where every appearance is staged to attain the maximum -- and most favorable -- media attention. The view of the people to what is depicted in the news is often quite different. What they have to say about their lives and futures, their assessment of the way the candidates are addressing (or failing to address) major issues, their perception of the choices before them nationally and the kinds of changes they would like to see made for the good of the country form the core of America's political agenda -- and to many citizens, it is the part of the process politicians seem to ignore.

This year in particular promises to be an election in which personal attitudes are more confounding and critical. With all the talk about people facing more negative presidential choices than usual, it's likely this election will remain in doubt until the day people enter the voting booths. How many actually choose to vote this time obviously will be even more decisive: a large turnout works for the president and the Democrats, but the trend in recent elections has been toward lower and lower numbers of voters.

These are among the questions to be examined once away from Washington, but there are others more important.

In other trips around the nation these last two decades, I always returned home with a renewed sense of confidence in the maturity of the citizens and the prospects for the future. No matter how grave the problems, whether racial strife at home, war abroad or destruction of national leaders, by and large the people you'd meet responded to these signs of national trouble with remarkable resiliency, patience and good humor. I wonder this time if the attitudes are still as positive, if the kinds of negativism and cynicism that permeate Washington have spread to the nation. And I wonder if the conditions the nation faces are as complex and difficult as they appear, whether the citizens fully understand them and are prepared to work together, to sacrifice even, for the common good.

In the cries for leadership continually heard, do they really want someone to tell them what to do or are they prepared to enter the political fray themselves and work in the public service? And I wonder if the presidential prospects really seem as bleak as we keep saying they are, then what kinds of alternatives would people like to see?

Perhaps when I return I'll find the happiest of worlds -- that the new technology that has come into its own during my absence has produced a clone to answer all my questions. Or, better yet, create a new and more able model. His valid name to operate the green machine will be, I am just informed, literally and no jokes about this one. JOHNSONHAYNS.

But can he -- it -- type?