The Concept of Function Creep

Bert-Jaap Koops (2021), ‘The Concept of Function Creep’, 13 Law, Innovation and Technology (1) (Forthcoming)

20 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2020

See all articles by Bert-Jaap Koops

Bert-Jaap Koops

Tilburg University - Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT)

Date Written: March 3, 2020


Function creep – the expansion of a system or technology beyond its original purposes – is a well-known phenomenon in STS, technology regulation, and surveillance studies. Correction: it is a well-referenced phenomenon. Yearly, hundreds of publications use the term to criticise developments in technology regulation and data governance. But why function creep is problematic, and why authors call system expansion ‘function creep’ rather than ‘innovation’, is underresearched. If the core problem is unknown, we can hardly identify suitable responses; therefore, we first need to understand what the concept actually refers to.

Surprisingly, no-one has ever written a paper about the concept itself. This paper fills that gap in the literature, by analysing and defining ‘function creep’. This creates conceptual clarity that can help structure future debates and address function creep concerns. First, I analyse what ‘function creep’ refers to, through semiotic analysis of the term and its role in discourse. Second, I discuss concepts that share family resemblances, including other ‘creep’ concepts and many theoretical notions from STS, economics, sociology, public policy, law, and discourse theory. Function creep can be situated in the nexus of reverse adaptation and self-augmentation of technology, incrementalism and disruption in policy and innovation, policy spillovers, ratchet effects, transformative use, and slippery slope argumentation.

Based on this, function creep can be defined as *an imperceptibly transformative and therewith contestable change in a data-processing system’s proper activity*. What distinguishes function creep from innovation is that it denotes some qualitative change in functionality that causes concern not only because of the change itself, but also because the change is insufficiently acknowledged as transformative and therefore requiring discussion. Argumentation theory illuminates how the pejorative ‘function creep’ functions in debates: it makes visible that what looks like linear change is actually non-linear, and simultaneously calls for much-needed debate about this qualitative change.

Keywords: function creep, creep concepts, databases, social systems, argumentation theory, conceptualisation

JEL Classification: K10, K20, O32, O33, O38

Suggested Citation

Koops, Bert-Jaap, The Concept of Function Creep (March 3, 2020). Bert-Jaap Koops (2021), ‘The Concept of Function Creep’, 13 Law, Innovation and Technology (1) (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN:

Bert-Jaap Koops (Contact Author)

Tilburg University - Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT) ( email )

P.O.Box 90153
Prof. Cobbenhagenlaan 221
Tilburg, 5037

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