Numerous outlets are reporting that Keith Flint, lead vocalist for British electronic band The Prodigy, has passed away. Merely by coincidence, I’ve been listening to their iconic 1997 album The Fat of the Land frequently in the last few weeks. Their album has been one in a never-ending series of examples of why I don’t believe there are real limits to economic growth. I’ve been scribbling notes on this for a while, and in memory of Mr. Flint it is perhaps worthwhile to share some thoughts.
First, when people talk about “limits to economic growth,” they often mean “limits to material production.” Economic growth, however, means much more than material production. It encompasses everything that makes life worth living, from material goods like TVs to services like haircuts to the arts. The arts, I think, show that economic progress is limitless.
Even limits to material production probably don’t exist, and the possibility of material superabundance is a good place to start thinking about artistic (specifically musical) superabundance. Consider the number of ways you can shuffle a simple deck of 52 cards. There are 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000 permutations of 52 cards. By comparison, approximately 432,300,000,000,000,000 seconds have elapsed since the beginning of the universe. Suppose you did nothing but shuffle cards once a second. You would get through a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the possibilities before the sun burns out.
That’s just a single deck of cards. Now consider that there are about 2,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in the universe. That is itself an incomprehensibly large number, which produces an even more incomprehensibly large number of possible combinations. And this isn’t even beginning to take into consideration the number of possible locations in space of all of these combinations. “But we only have one planet!” Fine. Let’s take 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 as the number of atoms on earth. The number of combinations you can make from that number is perhaps less incomprehensibly large, but it’s still incomprehensibly large.
Here’s the thing, though: musicians combine sounds, not atoms. There might be an upper limit to the number of possible combinations of sounds out there. A quick Google search suggests that there are more than 5 trillion chords available to a single two-handed pianist and over 42.8 quintillion chords available to two two-handed pianists with an 88-key piano, and this is just music at its most basic. We haven’t even begun talking about the number of possible sequences of chords, or how those sequences are arranged, or instruments with which the piano might be combined, or what have you.
The Prodigy was part of the electronica movement of the 1990s, which influenced even traditional acts like The Rolling Stones and U2, both of which released electronica-tinged albums a few months before The Prodigy released The Fat of the Land. Groups like The Prodigy, Underworld, The Chemical Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, and many others took advantage of new technology and developed new ways of making music — or noise, depending on your preferences.
The great economist Julian Simon famously pointed out that the mind is the ultimate resource. Just as we come up with ever-newer ways to combine materials into new goods and services, people are constantly coming up with new ways to combine sounds into music. As we lament the loss of Keith Flint, it’s perhaps an appropriate tribute to his legacy to remember how he and his bandmates showed us that there really are no limits to progress.