There are times, and this is one of them, when the Social Security Administration seems to be in a race with itself to determine which way it will self-destruct: by bankruptcy or computer collapse.

The bankruptcy scenario is familiar to any reader of the daily papers. The computer's horrors are just as real and embedded in a machine that is massive, intricate and ever-expanding. But even the experts who operate the computer cannot always control it.

"You can't maintain it, you can't change it and you can't hire people to work on it," laments John A. Svahn, the new commissioner at SSA, who has made overhaul of the computer system his top priority.

"The mere mention of the system is guaranteed to provoke gales of laughter and bouts of knee-slapping among people in the computer science field," says Jan Prokop, a computer scientist who served as associate commissioner for systems at SSA in 1979 and 1980.

So far, the computer system has not faltered to the point the agency has been unable to meet its primary charge of getting checks to 36 million beneficiaries by the third of each month. But there is so much the computer cannot do or does badly. Some examples:

Just to implement the normal cost-of-living increases this year, SSA's computer programmers had to spend 20,000 hours feeding data into computers that whirred day and night for nearly four months. With a less unwieldy system, said Svahn, that kind of operation could have been completed in two or three days.

The task of removing certain recipients of the so-called minimum benefit from the SSA rolls, as Congress mandated this summer, is going to be tackled manually because, "just to figure out how to make our computers do it would take 18 months," in the words of Svahn. The manual process will take six months and cost $150 million. Incidentally, midway through the process, Congress and the president are expected to restore the benefit.

The computer backlog at the SSA is such that it can take months or years--in one case, it took 15 years--before the SSA discovers that a beneficiary has died, moved, lost a spouse or under-gone any of the other changes that call for some alteration in the benefit check. Moreover, the SSA has fallen as far as three years behind in simply recording the retirement contributions of millions of American workers.

It takes time for technology to come to such a sorry pass. Twenty years ago at the SSA, the software system--the manner in which instructions are fed into the computers--was among the most advanced. But over the years, as the demands on the system multiplied, the SSA responded "by throwing more and bigger computers at the problem," says Svahn, without overhauling the software system to keep pace.

The result is a crazy-quilt, slap-dash network of 76 different software systems that incorporate a variety of technologies spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s. "It's sort of like you started with a log cabin, then you added on a wing made of framing lumber, then another make of brick and another made of glass," said one systems auditor who asked not to be identified. "After a while, it gets kind of hard to find your way around."

Worse, the architects of these various additions often failed to leave blueprints behind. "The documentation has been terrible," said Svahn, who recently had to borrow a computer expert who had left SSA for private industry because he was the only one who understood the system he had designed.

Experts and watchdogs have been aware of the SSA's computer problems for years. The General Accounting Office has issued 32 separate reports since 1974. The Department of Health and Human Services has its own review under way, as does SSA and the Government Operations Committee of the House of Representatives.

But alas, the experts don't always agree. In 1979, after 3 1/2 years of study, the SSA came up with a "Future Systems Plan" that supposedly would be the plan to end all plans, the road map for the next decade. Within months, a new team came in to head SSA, and they ditched the plan.

Most students of the problem agree that people are at the heart of the computer mess. SSA has had a history of hiring its computer specialists from within, and Prokop notes that by doing so, SSA has cut itself off from the best minds in the computer field.

Upgrading the technical aspects of the system without bringing in new people to work on it would be, Prokop says, like "giving an aircraft to an apprentice chauffeur." Of course, recruitment is made difficult by the more attractive salaries in the private sector.

Svahn is busily working on his own plan to address these long-term problems, but meanwhile there are more immediate concerns.

The SSA is moving its entire computer operation from its headquarters in Woodlawn, outside of Baltimore, to a new building a mile away. Svahn says the new building "looks nicer" than the old one, but worries that it will be outdated by the time the move is completed next year.

On the other hand, there is this silver lining: With a state-of-the-art uninterrupted power supply at the new building, "we won't have to worry any more about a good stiff thunderstorm knocking out our computers for a couple of hours." That's been another problem.