The concept of function creep

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


Function creep – the expansion of a system or technology beyond its original purposes – is a well-known phenomenon. Correction: it is a well-referenced phenomenon. Yearly, hundreds of publications use the term to criticise developments in technology regulation and data governance, but 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. After analysing the term ‘function creep’ itself, 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, I define function creep as an
imperceptibly transformative and therewith contestable change in a data-processing system’s proper activity. 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 a much-needed debate about this qualitative change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-56
Number of pages28
JournalLaw, Innovation and Technology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • function creep; creep concepts; databases; social systems; argumentation theory; conceptualisation


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