Cybernetics is not the banana.

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readJul 14, 2021



What are we offering the world?

Imagine a chimp in a cage. In this cage is a banana on top of a large shelf, out of reach for the chimp. However, there is also a stick in the cage. Of course, the chimp will manage to get the banana using the stick.
To this story, von Foerster said: cybernetics is not about the banana.

Ask yourself — what am I offering my clients? As a consultant, as a company, as a trainer, as a teacher…

  • Am I offering them the banana? Tasty, juicy, sweet, addictive — but just one banana.
  • Or the stick? Very handy in specific situations where the banana is on a high shelf.
    As the joke says — teach a man to fish, and he’ll sit in a boat and drink beer all day.
  • Am I offering them the shelf, bananas for the storage of? Another chimp, to guard the monkey?
  • Or — am I offering them the ability to conceptualise the situation and the goal in context so that they can see the ways to actually achieve the goal — whether through stick, step, or tearing down the wall on which the shelf sits?

That’s a much harder thing to get across — but much, much more valuable.

Because von Foerster is wrong, too — cybernetics isn’t the stick. Cybernetics is the *situation* (which Angus Jenkinson accurately pins as one of *the* core cybernetic concepts) — monkey, banana, stick, and shelf. Or it’s the ability to (re)conceptualise the situation. To make sense, in new ways.

We don’t need more bananas. We do need more monkeys who can think.

What are *you* offering?

The full conversation quote is nice (see links to the video along with my definitions of cybernetics here:

  • Gooch: “I’m sure, everybody is wondering: What is Cybernetics?”
  • Foerster: “I wondered all the time myself, what it is. One of the things, I think, you learn, when you become interested in Cybernetics, is that definitions are no good. So I would rather not go into details what is Cybernetics….”
  • Gooch: “Well, it might be helpful thought to at least have some general feel for what Cybernetics is.”
  • Foerster: “But we are doing it already. We are doing it already by going into a dialogue. I think essentially, Cybernetics is a way of looking at things, a way of understanding what is going on. What is language? What are problems of that sort? And it is a little bit as — if I may be a little bit naïve at that moment — for instance you have a chimpanzee and there is a banana. And it comes up with a stick and pulls the banana out. Cybernetics is NOT the banana. Cybernetics is the STICK. It is how do you get there, how do you see that thing, how can you do this.”

Thanks to Ed van der Winden who I think first introduced me to this story.