Between Squatting, Data Mining and Gold Farms

It is partly due to the way in which I run my life, my limited resources and my spread it thin mentality that has meant I haven’t been able to contribute quite as much as I would have liked to the EdgeRyders platform so far.

So the Making a Living mission seems like an appropriate place to contextualise that position.

It would make most sense to start with University as the beginning, since this is the moment in which for me the stakes are first raised and you suddenly find you’re responsible for yourself, feeding, housing, watering etc.

But before that, I’d like to outline the slightly absurd way in which I made money between the ages of 14-16, without turning this into an essay, this was highly formative to my understanding of the world – and perhaps if there’s interest I can expand on this in the comments thread.

Ultima Online was the first MMORPG, it had a monthly subscription of around £13 – I had 7 accounts (£91). If you followed the link, you should understand that UO was a world that was constantly online, with its own economy, its own housing market, its own culture. Individuals attributed real world value basically for two reasons; an exchange value between time inputted and the paid monthly subscription, secondly because some valued the world of UO over their ‘real’ life existence.

Over the course of 2 years (although I played the game for 6), I made around £15,000, which as a teenager still studying was fairly substantial. I did this in several ways that although I was unaware at the time parallel with ‘real world’ market activity. I sold gold pieces (the ingame currency), the exchange rate averaged 1 Million GP =  £25. Transactions would take place like so: individuals would deposit money into my real world account, I would meet the individual at the bank in the game and transfer the respective gold pieces to their player character.

I made these gold pieces primarily in 4 ways:

  • I ran 5 computers at once in my bedroom, one active account the other 4 script mining resources.
  • I kept a mental index and spreadsheets of the going rate for all items in the game, whenever I saw something at auction or for sale that I could profit on I would buy it, tactically I created monopolies on certain items (this was made easy by owning prime shopping real estate in game)
  • I bought accounts from Ebay with £££, asset stripped them and sold them on for profit.
  • I scammed other players, through narrative and roleplay - myself and a guild of thieves befriended other guilds and took them for all we could, property, gold and weapons.

This all came to an end as a viable form of income when the Asian markets cottoned onto what was happening and created ‘gold farms’ on a large scale and by this point the mechanics of the game had changed so significantly it ceased to be fun just to play it.

It wasn’t until I was about 21 that I realised just how much my time in Ultima Online had influenced my perception of the world, an intuitive understanding for complexity, rule breaking and market dynamics. But primarily it had given me an advantage in understanding exactly how online activity and relationships can translate into a realer meat space.

Parallel universes aside, onto to when it gets real,  I chose art school, mainly because it seemed like the sort of place you could do anything, providing you could articulate a convincing argument and probably because I was an idealist, utopian, looking for a playground.

During my second term at University I was offered a couple of weeks work through a family friend at a major satellite broadcaster that had recently created a team to do data mining and network analysis, at the time it wasn’t clear how influential this kind of technology would become. This was the team I joined, I was literally text mining vast databases with my eyes for the first few weeks, from which I had to extrapolate useful but abstract datasets to capture viewing preferences, this was pre-netflix.

It turned out I was pretty good at it and I was hungry in my desire to understand what this sort of analysis could do, fortunately because the team was small I worked alongside an industry leader in the field, who fed me everything I could possibly want to know about the work.

At the time I was terrified by the prospect of governments using the same kind of data capture and this fueled a lot of personal research. The company hired me, insanely they did so for £45,000 pro rata, at the time I also had a student loan, I worked all my holidays, remotely and traveled 3 days a week to London to work at their HQ, all whilst studying. My income was absurd – but it didn’t seem like it was going to disappear anytime soon, I was reckless, I saved nothing.

I paused work with them in the final year of my degree so I could focus my attention, in lots of ways this was a critical mistake but not one I foresaw. The 2008 crash occurred during my final term and the guaranteed job upon graduation evaporated.

I’d invested over £5000 in my final piece of work, in fact throughout this time I poured a stupid amount of money into the production of artwork. I couldn’t pay this money back and through this and other complications, I crashed my credit rating and ended up with a CCJ (county court judgement), this wrote off all my bank accounts and left me in a situation in which I couldn’t rent property, couldn’t get loans, couldn’t hold a phone contract and so I moved back in with my mum and got depressed.

3 months past, I upgraded my web design skills, then something happened that changed almost everything. Some friends I’d been squatting with on and off with in London throughout my time at Uni occupied a large townhouse in Mayfair. I went to visit in the first week and never returned home. For the next 4 months we occupied buildings throughout Mayfair, running exhibitions, events and later a free school, The Temporary School of Thought – which was incredibly formative to every layer of my thinking but to much for me to go into detail here. Instead I’ll detail the economics of the space that laid the foundations for 3 years of ‘free living’.

It’s important to note here in the context of policy, squatting was banned last month in the UK but going back centuries squatting has allowed for a different mode of living, for an alternative production of culture, social innovation and for protest. It allowed for the occupation of unused properties by anyone, under civil law, previously without the risk of conviction. Understanding the value created in these spaces is not something I believe policy to be good at, it can’t be easily quantified or measured.

During this time we were a constantly mutating group of about 20-30 with a fixed core of 10. We ate, lived and slept together, we barely ever left the building, we gave our whole bodies to the endeavor we’d set for ourselves. As such we became and still are very close, this is my extended family, my support network that catches me when I occasionally fall (and vice versa).

We were feeding on average 60 people a day, we got our food by skipping (/dumpster diving), from wholesale vegetable markets and supermarket bins. We got our toilet paper and other general amenities from the surrounding luxury hotels on Park Lane, their weekly skips also provided us with furniture. In return for the public events and the lived ethos we espoused people commonly brought us things we needed, or didn’t need in many instances.

It was the case that for 6 months we lived almost literally without money, instead we indulged a parasitic relationship with the waste of the city and society at large.

The project came to a halt in early 2009 -we’d exhausted ourselves- and after being evicted after 72 hours of occupation from our final squat in central London, moving 3 van loads of accumulated stuff, including 2 full sized pianos, suddenly became much less amusing. We were all effectively homeless – we spread out between friends houses in South London and tried to figure out what to do next. On the third night, a group broke a new building, a 3 bedroom flat, there were 15 of us, the prospect of living 5 to a room with no public facing project didn’t thrill me, I booked a coach ticket with my brothers paypal account to a close friend’s in Bristol and left at 5am whilst everyone was sleeping. The others referred to this later disparagingly as PLAN X-ing.

The next 6-8 months the group continued living together in the flat, whilst I moved between London, Bristol and Brighton – staying with friends, I traded my webdesign skills for food, coaches and couches. During this time I’d also won a small research grant from Brighton University to develop an online platform and experimental talks program. The hours I put in quickly outstripped any reasonable financial remuneration – but by this point I had adopted whole heartily an ethos of dramatically reducing my standard of living so to realise work that I could believe in and commit to without compromise.

At the end of the year the group, the extended family, decided to squat a new building. Since friends were graduating, couches were running out and no one in my network needed a second website, I returned to London to squat again.

The property we moved into was completely gutted, down to the brickwork, it had one sink and a toilet that just about worked. Some of the rooms were missing floors and we had to be creative with electricity. To be honest though it was perfect for us, it was a clean slate on which to build, we used hammocks to sleep in for the first few weeks whilst we scavenged local skips for wood and building materials, within a month we’d built high beds in every room, rebuilt the floors, a kitchen (with non-functioning concrete sink) and a bath that ran dirty water out into the guttering system.

During this time I was living out of a single bag, from squatting to nomadism, I managed this by storing things at different peoples houses, traveling only with essentials. Those essentials were; cash, phone, wash bag, notebook, usb sticks, chargers and passport – this was all made manageable by having my brothers online paypal account, storing files online and a skype phone account.

It’s probably important to note at this point that in many ways squatting becomes and is a lifestyle, you don’t need to do paid work much and you probably have more free time but the daily routine that you’ve elected for yourself involves building, maintaining, finding food and defending/occupying the building. You become acutely aware of the infrastructure that we’re all so reliant on to survive. It’s also important to note that people take different roles within this, you divide tasks and everything is shared communally, clothes, food, beds, possessions. It’s only once you’ve established a secure space does any kind of plasticity of lifestyle choice re-enter the equation.

It was this plasticity and the comfort that set in, having established our first long term squat that led me to change direction. I began curating and producing more art shows, my relationship to the world of contemporary art intensified and I fed my practice with scraps of freelance web design. After 8 months of stability, we were asked to leave the building, suddenly due to my commitments I couldn’t spend nights cycling the streets looking for and entering empty buildings trying to find a new home. So renting started to look like the only option.

At this moment I abandoned squatting but it was a difficult transition that I am heavily indebted to the generosity of friends for supporting, I couch surfed and house sat, whilst producing quite a vast body of work with no remuneration, I tried to accumulate enough funds to rent somewhere. Due to the CCJ, this was difficult, I had to find somewhere that didn’t require a credit check, didn’t require a deposit and was affordable on a near non existent income.

I’m going to cut this report off here, it’s a logical pause point because at least in terms of circumstance my lifestyle changed quite radically when I came to rent and as such the discussion here is likely to work better if compartmentalised. What’s described here is kind of off the edge, no bank account, scavenging for food in an urban environment, off grid in the city and full communal living, which  is a subject in itself. That differs vastly to the informal economy of the contemporary art world that I came to inhabit. Although there is a thread throughout – as described by friend and collaborator Dougald Hine, it is one of
learning to live poorer.

The second half can be found here.

Hello Ben,

thank you for

Hello Ben,

thank you for sharing this life experience of yours… I guess it takes time and courage to change your life so radically!

My question would be that, now, looking back do you feel that at some point you made the wrong decision?

During the conference I was part of the Making a Living breakout and the statement “I had other initial plans that I couldnt follow…” was very popular…

I would like your own opinion about that!

I hope everything is getting better :slight_smile:


Man, this is just insane. You are an Edgeryders’ Edgeryder. An Edgeryder square!

You and I, we need to talk seriously at some point. I am off to reading the second part of the report.

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I had a feeling…

I just knew you boys would get along.

Don’t take over the world while I’m too busy to participate, ok?


Learning from an old hand

Brilliant story … just found it thanks to a hint by @edgeryders who probably knew I’m fond of this type of lifestyle :slight_smile: But though I have some little experience with dumpster diving, I did not “learn” squatting yet. It appears from your story that it is something requiring knowledge and experience to be enjoyed … I’m eager to learn it one day from one old hand in the field like you …

Kudos for the concluding quote of “learning to live poorer”. Or, simpler. And needing money less nearly always means simpler living. in my experience, it’s for a good part about freeing my mind from much of the valuations of mainstream consumer society. For example, I built parts of my furniture from wood harvested from a crashed truck trailer, and aluminum sheet metal harvested from the junkyard. Not beautiful in any weird commercial sense, but soo cheap, and it does what I want it to. My valuation for having it created myself, and the system being my own invention, makes more than up for the fact that my furniture is (built from) trash :smiley:

Now, that’s a skill|

Building furniture with scavenged parts, Neodynos? Sounds great to me. That could be a nice project for the Unmonastery: did you know that Matera is the home of  (wounded, possibly dying) cluster of companies making sofas and armchairs (“padded furniture” in Italian)? There must be LOADS of scavengeable parts lying around. You could also make some additions to EarthOS as to how to do that stuff.


Thanks for the encouraging comment, Alberto :slight_smile: And yes I’d love to finish the furniture part for the EarthOS thing and do some more practical experiments and tests.

Let’s call it “furniture” though, with the quotation marks :wink: It’s a simple reusable system of simple DIY parts, have a look at the page, which is the system from the 1970’s on which it is based. So, it’s not anything like current commercial products because I design it from a background of not having any luxury or extra comfort to add to it. I’m down to pure usefulness and reconfigurability only with this, and I expect this type of lifestyle to spread wherever precarity spready in the next years …

But yes of course, “real” furniture can be used for parts too. It would just all end up being used differently, not to imitate the product it once was …