Knowing and Caring

Do you ever idly fantasize about kicking a wine enthusiast in the pants? Wine enthusiasts routinely confuse knowing with caring. They are eager to explain to you that this 1992 Chardonnay has more body while that one has a cleaner finish.  They assume that if only you knew you would start to care. I made up this 3×3 matrix to illustrate the various combinations of knowing and caring about any sort of A-B distinction. Ponder. I will explain.


The smarter wine enthusiasts drop the olfactory jargon and focus on comparative tasting, because they know you might care without knowing. Perhaps I am unconsciously drinking more from that bottle of wine rather than this bottle at the dinner table. Perhaps the right experiment would bring my perceptions closer to awareness, to the point where I might be able to express a coarse A over B preference, without being able to explain it.

But the smartest wine enthusiasts know that it is actually possible to know without caring. These are the only ones who don’t turn into crashing bores or snobs.

Unfortunately you cannot compress this to a 2×2 because the subconscious element in knowing/caring matters. This applies well beyond oenophilia, to things like graphic design and innovation: any field where knowledge involves trained perceptions, technician skills and aesthetics, and external incentives exist that matter more to some  than to  others.

I hope the archetype tags are self-explanatory. The top left corner unfortunately contains too many people: those who can’t tell the difference between A and B but end up pretending for social reasons, often burying secret fears of being “found out” with layers of denial. I color that red because it is the only pathological state.

The green states on the other hand, are the stable ones, where there is no disconnect between your knowing and caring levels. The blue ones are non-equilibrium states. The amateur who fundamentally is sensitive to important distinctions will eventually train his eye and vocabulary enough to become a connoisseur, if he persists. The unenlightened can become a dabbler by learning/practicing more, an amateur by deciding to care more, and a connoisseur by doing both. The explorer, unsure of his interests and unaware of his perceptual limitations, must eventually become either a philistine or a pretender. The vertical line between the first two columns is a watershed of sorts. You cannot cross it; there is no way to overcome a basic blindness. The three states in the lower right corner are isolated states: you are unlikely to move (geeks might enjoy visualizing a state transition diagram on the grid).

In fields where connoisseurs must sell to laypeople, they hope fervently that most of the rest of the population is in the convertible-to-customer amateur and unenlightened states. This frequently leads to denial that the other 5 categories exist, and are non-empty.  In my own industry (print and graphic arts), one that looks at the world through a loupe, we don’t like to admit that consumers might perceive and care less about fonts and color differences than we do.

All connoisseurs are experts, but not all experts are connoisseurs.I am deeply fascinated by people who know but don’t care. The indifferents. My favorite example of this is the mysterious character of Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings. He is clearly an ancient and powerful being who, like Gandalf and Galadriel, clearly perceives and understands the nature of the One Ring. Unlike the other powerful figures in the story though, he is completely immune to the ring’s powers. The ring has no effect on him. He knows but he does not care.

Closer home, I am a wine-philistine, coffee-amateur, writing connoisseur and musically unenlightened. Oddly enough, I am an “indifferent” in my technical areas of expertise, about most of the distinctions that my peers obsess about. I admit I sometimes derive malicious fun out of toying with people who know and perceive less than me, but care more. Nothing is more fun than watching an Indifferent or Dabbler bait a Pretender. Especially if the Pretender has degrees and Indifferent/Dabbler is nominally an outsider.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. So the “don’t care” people add no value to making decisions based on a distinction, whether they see it or not, whereas the people who care will emphasise a distinction even when they don’t know if it’s there or not.

    I wonder though whether “dabbler” is also unstable; caring about something and not knowing if you care is a pretty unusual state, leading to people who can make a distinction but are not conscious of it being wound up or happy without apparent cause! You can imagine the dabbler being aware that they care about something, just not sure what. This is likely to lead to experimentation, going through all the distinctions they know, which I presume is why you call them dabblers. The connoisseurs have only one thing to teach them; metaphor/poetry not terminology, so they can understand their own value structures better.
    Given time and opportunity they will likely become connoisseurs themselves.

    What you call the explorer is probably the weirdest of all the categories; the secretly envious! That category is what makes the pretenders worthwhile, if it even exists, people so “secretly wish” they were as discriminating as you. I’d probably call it them audience or sycophants or something, because they’ll show deference to something they don’t in the slightest get.

    The category you call the unenlightened I’d call the explorer instead, as they are the people with no mental set of permutations to follow, only a newtons-method style analysis of their own preference. As such they are likely to be stuck on local maximums, with the connoisseurs suggesting they come to the next hill up.

    Naturally that relationship could be extended to have a whole range of higher hills in different places, but that would start making the model multidimensional, so it’s probably best to leave it there!

    • Your comment validates my general unhappiness with this model. I kinda posted it in the spirit of perpetual beta spirit, but it is too big and unwieldy a model, even without going multidimensional. The temptation to fiddle with the taxonomy and look at more variables suggests that we are missing a fundamental piece somewhere.

      I’ll probably figure out something more basic a year or more from now, by which time this piece will be buried :)

  2. michaelhawk says

    To make your grid complete, you’d need to add “care, but don’t know” and “can’t tell, but don’t know.” A pretender is someone who cares and knows, and can’t make the relevant distinctions and knows it. They feel vulnerable to exposure, because they know they can’t make the distinctions. Someone who cares and knows, and can’t make the relevant distinctions *but doesn’t know it* is… what, a boor? Good luck filling in the rest of the boxes.

    I wanted to respond more about the mention of Tom Bombadil. He’s my favorite character as well, yet always absent from adaptations, like the BBC radio play and films. The character confounds utilitarian re-interpretations of the text. He’s one character who does not advance the plot, yet he has a power.

    I would like to see you place the character of Tom Bombadil in the context of the Office. You have a little theory of power relations and communication going, but have left poor Tom out once again. What is the type that possesses power (has stakes on the table) yet chooses not to take advantage? According to your definition he’s clueless. But Tom is not clueless, he’s enigmatic, thwarting our means-ends analysis. Somehow he falls outside it, but where?

    The languages you list in your analysis of The Office are either delusional (protecting the ego of the speaker, or denying power, or missing it completely; PostureTalk & GameTalk) or a mask for power (BabyTalk & PowerTalk). The only language of truth is StraightTalk, because it lays bare both the facts and unmasks power. This language issues unambiguous commands, and is usually avoided by interposing a managerial class responsible for delivering orders in the delusional languages. This view of language is at odds with “idealists” who think power relations can be distinguished from language.

    But what language does Tom Bombadil speak? The power and knowledge gap between Tom and the clueless Hobbits is enormous. Presumably Tom does not speak the language of delusion, even though his words are dream-like. But neither is it PowerTalk or StraightTalk. Is it BabyTalk? I don’t think so.

    The key moment of communication is when Tom takes the ring, plays with it, and then returns it. That is how we know for sure Tom is not like the other characters, all of whom are wrapped up in the power of the Ring. What sort of communication is that?

    I would say it is the communication of a disruption of the logic of the book. It creates an outside to the logic of the Ring, one that is never explored or explained. Your analysis of The Office depends on a stable structure of value -the stakes;’ money- around which games of power develop an interiority where players can succeed or fail in comprehending and playing the game. Tom is both inside and outside the game; he exists in the world of the Ring, but somehow the Ring has no value for him.

    A cop-out would deny Tom appears within “the organization.” But your managerial theory can be broadly interpreted. We all are contained in networks of human inter-relations in which there are winners and losers, people giving and taking orders, with values at stake. If we interpret it broadly enough that it encompasses all human relationships to power, where does Tom fit in?