Mobutu is Congolese. He has an MBA from Wharton and a Master’s in Computer Science from MIT. He’s been working tirelessly for a decade to reinvigorate the economy and the people of his native land. And he’s the reason an email about Cialis just beat your spam filter.
Mobutu grew up in abject poverty in a nation divided between bloodthirsty warlords. He taught himself English by reading the t-shirts accumulated from relief efforts, and before you could say “We Are the World” he was the de-facto translator for his village. Before his older brother died from stepping on a land mine, he made Mobutu promise to leave and get an education in America. Mobutu was the great hope for the family. But Mobutu could never do enough frat party keg stands to blunt the sting of the survivor’s guilt he felt every day he was away from his home. He vowed to return and use his advanced education to liberate his people from poverty, violence and 1980s late night monologue punch-lines.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was called Zaire when last you were forced to think of the world beyond your borders, is one of the world’s most resource-rich nations. That’s the grand irony of its status as one of the five poorest nations in the world. Mobutu’s east coast American education tried to teach him that imperialist first-world nations are evil for exploiting the natural resources of poor nations, but he couldn’t believe it. He’d absolutely love it if Americans came and raped his land. They’d have to build roads and airports to do it. They’d have to create security and stability in those areas to protect their capitalist pig interests. They’d have to pay local people more than the zero dollars they currently get paid to do the labor. They’d have to give the people who, for lack of a better option, make war on their own people, a better option. Every night he stayed up late dreaming of ways to get the imperialists to come and use his native land to make a profit.
The political situation at home kept foreign capitalist interests at bay. The instability of the region, the unpredictability of any given war chief and the institutionalized corruption of what could only loosely be called “government” made the area too big a risk for potential investors. The constantly fluctuating legal framework of the country coupled with the fact that people just get murdered by the dozens at random intervals creates what Mobutu’s professors at Wharton would call “a hostile business environment”.
Mobutu returned home with a single goal: to repair his native land and make it a more hospitable place for foreign investors. The task was monumental, and amounted to expanding his own influence enough that he would create, in effect, a second government.
The irony of seeking to accumulate enough power to create a shadow government as a means to stabilize a weak and corrupt government was not lost on Mobutu, but he saw no other way to spur the radical change that was needed. If Kickstarter had been around at the time that might have provided a better option, but there were plenty of other opportunities to capitalize on the Internet.
After email hit the tipping point that took it mainstream, the Internet was the wild west of advertising. Everybody was trying to find a way to monetize this global network and spam transformed from beloved salty treat into reviled Internet villain almost overnight. Mobutu’s graduate work at MIT centered on natural language processing and neural networks and he designed one of the first commercial email spam filtering programs. He made a small fortune licensing the algorithm, and used that money to press forward with his plans to bring prosperity back home.
With his spam-filtering gains, Mobutu put the first phases of his plan in motion. He got himself elected to Parliament. He opened a school to teach English, for free, to anyone who showed up at the door. He hired a regional warlord to provide security for the school, the terms of the contract stipulating a cessation of violent activity in the area. In only a couple of years he was making real, measurable progress.
Like any good businessman, Mobutu recognized the changing market and adapted accordingly. Ubiquitous broadband and GMail pushed smaller regional ISPs out of the market and sales of custom spam filtering software dried up almost overnight. Spam itself, however, continued unabated. And companies that relied on email to sell their products needed people like Mobutu, people who knew how to beat the spam filters, to keep sales up.
Mobutu started a full-service email marketing company. It was staffed entirely by local Congolese. Companies across the world would pay Mobutu’s company to create email marketing campaigns that would beat the filters. Mobutu’s clients saw conversion rates full orders of magnitude higher than similar companies that did not use his services. His company grew rapidly and the welfare of his countrymen rose along the same slope.
The money was pouring in. Mobutu hired graduates of his English school, which he had expanded into a full-fledged university, to research new markets and create the e-mail marketing campaigns that fueled the machine. When spam filtering software started to evolve he was able to adapt again, training and employing software engineers to dissect the algorithms and writers to create filter-beating messages. In his province, a higher percentage of Congolese completed higher education programs than do Americans, and Mobutu guarantees a job for every graduate.
It’s no secret that email marketing isn’t the world’s most highly regarded profession, but Mobutu enforces a strict moral code on the clients he accepts. He doesn’t get involved with foreign politics, so he is happy to assist, for instance, an online pharmaceutical concern with their email marketing. He will not, however, take on a pornography account, nor will he send email advertising on behalf of outright scammers. Rather than limit his potential clients, this policy increases his business because his customers feel like signing with Mobutu’s company gives them moral high ground.
Mobutu currently employs nearly 5,000 Congolese in his marketing business, schools and security forces. He has a summer internship program for schoolchildren where they earn a living wage working in an air-conditioned room beating CAPTCHAs and leaving marketing comments on blogs. He has brought a previously unknown prosperity to the Bandundu province and employs all of the former warlords of the area. In recent months he has made marked progress in meetings with a Manhattan venture firm to fund an ecologically neutral cobalt mining operation that would be owned and operated by Congolese citizens rather than the government or foreign interests. He’s made inroads with the fractured groups controlling other provinces and seems to be well on the way to creating the stability his country so desperately needs.
This prosperity is on tenuous ground, however. The warlords may be working with Mobutu but they don’t share his ideology and they will go where the money is greater.
When you marked that Cialis email as spam, you kicked off a chain of events that only a computer scientist could understand. The particular formula that Mobutu was using for that client was already riding the line of Bayesian inference and your self-righteous click pushed it over the edge. A mere 12 hours from now the client is going to see a conversion report and the numbers are going to be so far below the contractual minimum that they will drop Mobutu’s company, costing him millions in revenue.
One payment missed to the local warlords and the trust will be broken, maybe irreparably. Warlords don’t send collection notices. They will storm his office with armed men. His employees will be endangered. Some of them will be taken and sold into slavery in the eastern provinces.
Mobutu’s position in Parliament will be weakened. If he can’t find a way to get them their money the consequences will reach far beyond the loss of one client’s revenue. What took him years to build could collapse on itself in a matter of weeks, all because you got upset that some spammer slipped one past the goalie and found your inbox.