I pause, waiting for the kettle to boil, standing at the kitchen window and looking out into the gathering dusk. This part of the house is set up high on stumps so that it’s almost at second storey height; I can overlook our unruly garden right to the back of our neighbour’s house. Homing birds zoom between the shrubs and trees across my line of sight but my eye is drawn to a brilliant rectangle of light within a dark frame. It’s Joe’s* kitchen window; I can see from mine into his.
And now as I pour boiling water into my cup, I see him. He’s there, maybe fifty metres away, all lit up but unaware, and he’s bobbing up and down and then twisting sideways in what could be an odd kind of dance or exercise routine but probably isn’t. I stare, fascinated. What is he doing? I have to know, I have to make sense of these movements of his – in spite of my uneasy feeling that I am about to enter voyeuristic Rear Window territory. Though I don’t know for sure, with my lifetime knowledge of kitchen floorplans I think I can safely assume the window is in front of the kitchen sink. So it’s got to be something sink-related. Or undersink-related. I keep watching. Then I see the flash of metal and he stops the weird dance and turns away. My brain works furiously and then it all falls into place. He’s been looking for an oven tray. He’s been sorting through a low cupboard, taking out non-tray items, putting them on the bench and then going back in again until he finds the right one. A kind of relief floods through me. Puzzle solved.
And I think about artificial intelligence, about robot brains. I know they can look at CCTV footage of every person who passes every camera in a city and put a name to each face. But could they interpret the data – the time of day, the weird movements, the flash of metal – and make up the story, as I did? Creativity does not depend on rules or algorithms – it’s a leap into the dark, informed by personal, lived, felt experience. A computer can’t know what it’s like to grow increasingly more frustrated as you clash and bang through piles of irrelevant bakeware in an inconveniently low cupboard, but I do.
My neighbour Joe, leisurely now, puts something onto the tray and places it in the oven. He goes to the fridge but his back is to me, so I can’t see whether he’s reaching for a lettuce or the butter or a jar of pickled onions. Ah, yes, here he is, pouring liquid into a stemmed glass. A glass of wine is a good guess. Red or white? I’m not close enough to tell.
“And that’s enough now, Susan,” I say out loud. I’m starting to feel bad even though my neighbour has no idea he’s been spied upon. Everyone deserves to drink their pre-dinner wine in peace, I decide, drawing the blinds and reaching for my lukewarm tea.
But now, I start to wonder…what’s Joe having for dinner?
*Not his real name!