Mood Hacking at The World Economic Forum

(Update: see "Revisiting Mood Hacking with Scents", 3 December 2009.)

We are all familiar with the aromas used by stores in the hopes of motivating consumer frenzy.  Walk into some establishments and you may feel as if you have been smacked with a fragrant bunch of flowers.  Or possibly a fragrant leather shoe.  Maybe this actually encourages people to spend money.  It usually just makes me sneeze.

But what if the general strategy of behavior modification via perfumes of one kind or another really does work?  At the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, there was an explicit attempt to influence discussions through the use of custom scents designed for the occassion.

Here is a short excerpt from "Davos Aromas Deodorize Subprime Stench, Charm Dimon, Kissinger", by A. Craig Copetas (Bloomberg News):

"I know a lot of people think this is foolish,'' says Toshiko Mori, chairwoman of Harvard University's architecture department and one of the WEF delegates who initiated the perfume project. ``But the global economy is in dire straits and we must improve the quality of human spirits. Perfuming is a powerful tool in a much broader discourse. The fragrances will help us reach economic and political solutions at Davos.''

Here is CNN's take: "Smelly Davos unveils new world odor."  Ha.

The reader might imagine a room full of national security professionals debating the merits and ethics of this "technology".  We see two camps emerge.  The first group is shocked -- shocked! -- that biochemical warfare is being brought indoors to induce in captains of industry and policy makers a mood of compromise.  The second group notes that all it took to hack the mood of Boris Yeltsin was an open bottle of vodka.  The latter strategy has, of course, been used for millennia.

Hacking a the mood of an entire room full of people at once is an interesting twist, though.  What happens when someone modifies airborne rhinoviruses to express neuroactive peptides?  (See my post on iGEM 2008: "Surprise -- the Future is Here Already".)  Science fiction gave us the answer long ago.  Isaac Asimov had his characters wearing anti-viral filters in their nostrils even in his early stories.  Seems like filters with sufficiently small pores might make it hard to breathe.  And what happens if you sneeze?  "Ouch!" or "Ewww", I imagine.

Anyway, how would we even know that mood hacking was occurring?  Aside from simply noting changes in behavior, or getting, um, wind of the threat via human intelligence, we would have to measure any chemical or biological weapon directly.  But before pulling out the Tricorder and identifying a threat, we would first have to be constantly monitoring our environment in order to get a baseline of environmental signals.  So, we have already struck out.  No such monitoring is really happening.  We are just cherry picking a few things that are easy to see.  Oh, and still no Tricorder.

If the mood altering mechanism was delivered via a virus, we would have to not just monitor the number of viruses of any given species in the air, but also be sequencing all of them, all the time.  Again, we are striking out.

I have a hard time imagining that viral mood hacking threats are going to show up any time soon, but then we have no means of knowing either way.  Perhaps such things are already about.  How can you be sure you aren't part of "The Giving Plague"?